The Crusader of Mental Health

Possession Syndrome in Sringeri

In September 1978, on a clear morning, assembly prayers were being chanted by the children of the primary school of Thyavana, a village near Sringeri town. A girl from the seventh standard slowly slid down and lay on the ground, apparently unconscious. She was shifted to the shade and revived by sprinkling water, but could not speak for some time. She recovered after drinking hot coffee; she said she had felt dizzy and everything had gone dark; she could not recollect what had happened later. The girl was sent home with someone to accompany her.
Two days later, two other girls from the fifth standard got a similar attack. Some villagers declared that it was the work of evil spirits. Prayers and sacrifices were offered to the village gods, yet the attacks continued to occur during school assembly time. An old man recalled that two dead bodies had been buried in the grounds where the school was later built. The villagers were convinced that these spirits were angry at their resting place being usurped and began haunting the children. Gods were consulted through shamans, and they confirmed this belief. Elaborate rituals were held to drive away these spirits from the area.
All of the efforts and money spent were in vain. Now more children started getting these attacks, which had now changed in nature. The affected children would talk strangely during the attack. When asked who they were, they replied that they were gods of strength; one girl said she was ‘Kanthibale’, another was ‘Balewathi’. The people asked the spirits what mistake they had committed and what did they want. The children beat their stomachs and demanded food; children from vegetarian families asked for coconut, fruits and milk; non-vegetarian ones demanded chicken and meat. They would gobble the offered food. After recovering, their narration of events was similar to that of the first girl.

A senior priest from the Sringeri monastery conducted a special ‘yagna’ in the school. Some children continued to get the attacks. A few children were transferred to different schools by their parents, and these children stopped getting attacks.

In July 1979, a letter written by the headmaster of Thyavana primary school of Sringeri taluk appeared in two Kannada news dailies. He narrated the phenomenon of possession of the school children. Many parents had transferred their children to other schools. Attendance had been falling and the school faced the prospect of closure. Teachers were not being paid their salaries. The letter appealed for help from people with a scientific attitude to find a solution.

The state health department requested Dr. V Venkataramaiah, RMO of NIMHANS, to conduct a study. Venkataramaiah requested CRC to join the team since he had extensive experience in working in rural areas, could speak and write Kannada well. The team camped in Sringeri and conducted a study.

The team met the affected children and their parents, teachers in the school, and villagers. They even met the swami of Singeri mutt who had conducted the ‘yagna’. The swami was of the opinion that it was not caused by evil spirits; he asked the doctors to find out whether was a neurological or psychological illness. He requested them to cure the children.

A list of the affected children was prepared. These children were clinically examined and psychometric test was administered. The children stuck to their story. The psychometric test results showed that all of them were of average or below average intelligence and were highly suggestible. They were subjected to ‘abreaction’, the reliving of an experience under hypnosis. They were cross examined under the influence of intraval sodium injection. Now the truth started unraveling. Three girls admitted that they had simulated their attacks for amusement after seeing the first set of girls. Later they continued their act since they got whatever food they demanded. They had made up the names of the gods when asked their identity during the attack. Some other children had got terrified after witnessing the attacks and had feared that they too would become victims. The first girl to faint had to walk 4 km to reach the school every day. Some days she had to skip breakfast. She must have fallen unconscious due to hypoglycemia.

The doctors advised the children while they were under the influence of hypnotherapy not to stage these attacks but to ask directly for what they needed. The teachers and other people were briefed about the truth behind the phenomenon and were told not to talk of spirits and people getting possessed in the hearing of children.
The team conducted a survey of families in the 30 surrounding villages. They found a high prevalence of possession in the surrounding area and that 90% of people believed in possession. They welcomed being possessed by a god, but did not want to be haunted by spirits. Almost half of the affected children came from a family with history of possession. Those possessed by gods were respected by villagers, who would seek their help in being cured of illness or in solving their problems, and would offer donations in cash or kind. Some individuals, possessed by a god, had become very popular. On auspicious, amavasya (moonless) nights, hundreds would gather to witness the person getting possessed. They sought the intervention of the ‘god’ to get a male child, and solve issues related to marriage, property dispute, theft, murder, illness, poverty, etc.

The team went to meet a man who was to get possessed by ‘Veerbhadra’, a fearsome form of Lord Shiva, on the predicted new moon day. This man had been a washerman three years ago, and looked quite ordinary. After the episodes of possession began, he became famous, started earning a lot of money, and gave up his old profession. Over time, he became wealthy and bought farm lands.

The session was held in a temple compound. The man stood in front of the sanctum sanctorum, facing the swelling crowd. Two helpers stood on his sides. The godman mumbled some strange sounds, and then fell silent. His body first trembled, and soon began to sway. One helper applied vermilion on his forehead and exclaimed, ‘Father, protect us!’ and prostrated himself before him.

“The gods and ganas are coming into him”, the people whispered to each other.
The man’s eyes had rolled up and he had a fierce expression, as expected of the God Veerabhadra.
‘Why have I been summoned’, he asked in a strange loud voice.
The people standing in front pleaded, “O Father, take our sins upon yourself and save us”. The godman sprinkled holy ash over the assembly. “The god has compassion for you. Come one by one, offer your gifts, take your vows and be rid of your sufferings”, said one helper.

One farmer stepped forward and placed a betel leaf bowl, which had some soil, before the god-man. “I want to buy this land. Will it be beneficial for me?’, he asked. The god did not answer, but he dropped a flower into the bowl.
“The god has blessed you. You may buy the land. Go now, and after the first harvest, offer a share to the god,” one helper told him.

A second man came up. ”My son left home two weeks ago, and we cannot find him. Please find him and bring him back safe. I will offer 4 bags of rice when he returns”.

The godman made an angry grunt. A helper said, ”Your son has committed sins and has angered the god. Let him suffer the punishment”.

”No, no, please let him not suffer! He is a foolish ignorant boy. I ask for forgiveness on his behalf. As atonement, I will offer 10 bags of rice,” pleaded the father, touching his ears.

The god did not answer. “The god’s anger has not abated. The god will ensure that your son does not come to any harm. Even if it takes a long time, the god will make your son come back home safely. You may go now, and do not forget to bring the rice bags,” the helper told the father.

This process went on from morning till evening. The godman kept silent; the helper was the intermediary. The helper would exhort everyone to bring offerings, and react as appropriate to the supplicants: counsel them, scold or act very stern, offer hope to the dejected, ask them to follow traditions and do only good deeds and so forth.
Sometime in the middle, CRC came up to the godman and put to him few questions. The man came out from his possessed state and answered in his normal voice. It became apparent that the helpers had prior knowledge of the problems that people would present during the event. They had prepared their responses and were exploiting the believers.

During their one month camp, the team educated the villagers that they were being exploited by these ‘possessed’ people, and that they should not believe them.