Discourses of Women’s Trance and Tradition
“You see that lady bring her daughters to temple?” said lady one.
“Yes, I did. Can you believe that? What if all of dem start to play?” said lady two.
“That woman crazy! You come to temple to talk to Master to fix your problems, not for a family trip. Did you see some young kids running around in there? What if Master knock one of them down when he’s coming through the door?” replied lady one.
“Yes, it’s not like when you go to Mandir and ya know the children are safe,” lady two agreed.
(entry post #2, January 22, 2016)
The above statements are quotes that were posted in a recent online entry for the blog “Road to Shakti,” authored by Sati, an Indo-Guyanese - American middle-aged woman who described herself as “born in Guyana but living in NY ... raised here” and as “mom, wife, career woman, oracle reader and pujarin [female temple assistant]” (personal communication December 7, 2015). Sati recounts a recent conversation heard within earshot between two Indo-Caribbean women on the NYC subway during their commute home after attending a weekly worship meeting, or puja, at a local goddess temple in Queens. The author presents this dialogue in order to illustrate the prevailing anxieties and critical outlooks among Indo-Caribbeans and particularly between women, in this case presumably middle-aged, about other women who trance and participate in ecstatic forms of worship, particularly of the younger generation.
As encapsulated in the women’s dialogue and as I will further show, current consternation concerning women’s trance is part and parcel of ongoing attempts to legitimize ecstatic religious practices while acknowledging hegemonic perceptions and patriarchal ideologies of religious and racial difference. This is seen in the way Indo-Caribbeans continue to make the hierarchical distinction between mainstream orthodox Hinduism with restrained forms of worship at mandirs and the ecstatic practices of goddess- centered worship comprised of spirit mediumship and possession, animal sacrifice, flagellation, and a soundscape dominated by loud, repetitive tappu drumming accompanied by songs of supplication to invoke deities.
There is a general consensus among Indo-Caribbeans at large in NYC that ecstatic goddess-centered worship was first brought to the New World by an ethnic minority of Indian indentured laborers called “Madrasis” who emigrated via the southern port of Madras to work on the British sugar colonies from 1838 to 1917. Within a pseudoscientific racial hierarchy promulgated by colonial elites, Madrasis were placed lower than the majority of Indian laborers from northern regions of India. This was due to their closer proximity to blackness within a black-white continuum on the basis of phenotypical markers such as darker complexions and coarse hair types, as well as Victorian perceptions of ecstatic religious practices that were interpreted as “wild,” “lurid,” “demonic,” and akin to “African Voodoo” (Bolt 1971, 168-169, cited in Khan 2004, 39). Today, Indo- Guyanese-Americans who claim to have Madrasi heritage acknowledge ambivalently how they and their ancestors in Guyana were referred to as “Black Indians.” And, Indo-Caribbean goddess devotees are highly selfconscious of the way the majority of Indo-Caribbeans, especially orthodox Hindus, or “regular Hindus” (November 14, 2015) perceive their ecstatic religious practices, particularly trance during healing ceremonies, as “some kind of voodoo” and/or obeah.
Ironically, despite negative perceptions of trance that have historically stigmatized Indo-Caribbean goddess worship, trance remains an integral component in (re)defining “true Madras” goddess worship today. Trance, in the form of spirit mediumship, or “manifestation,” has become increasingly prestigious because it is viewed as a variable procedure to obtain healing and knowledge from the spirit world. The most revered position within a temple congregation is that of the Head Pujari, or priest, who is expected to manifest the presiding deity, or “Divine Mother.” The overwhelming majority of Indo-Guyanese-American Head Pujaris and temple assistants (called marlo pujaris—pujarin for women) who conduct the weekly puja are men of varying age groups, most with working-class backgrounds. When performing healing ceremonies called jharay during a puja, marlo pujaris invoke or “call-up” Mother by chanting and singing lullabies (thallatus) to Mother, projecting their voices through the udkay, a small hand-held hourglass drum. During jharay sessions, Mother dances with precise footwork and performs healing remedies by sweeping neem leaves across the supplicant’s body and giving verbal guidance to the individual standing before her. Currently, several Head Pujaris of temples, specifically those who are adamant about the South Indian and specifically “ancient Tamil” roots of Madrasi goddess worship, deliver guidance in the form of songs and melodies in the Tamil language when manifesting Mother, whom they prefer to call Mariamman (“mother of rain” in Tamil) as opposed to Kali. Marlo pujaris are also expected to manifest ancestral deities, including the male deities within the Madrasi pantheon who accompany Mother, including Madurai Veeran or “Master”/“Masta,” Sangani Karuppan or Sangani Baba, and Munispeeran or Muneshwaran. At temples where leaders recognize the presiding deity as Mariamman, the “sweet form,” marlo pujaris may also manifest Mother in one of her “other forms” which most often include Kali (sometimes synonymous with Badrakali), Durga, or Kateri (although she is a controversial deity and not worshipped at all Madrasi temples).
The prevalence of women’s trance is most often attributed to the presumed inherent difference between men and women, that women are weaker and less capable of controlling what may befall her and inhabit her body. This viewpoint has been most widely communicated to me by Indo-Guyanese-American men of varying age groups. For instance, a young adult male in his early twenties who is a temple drummer (who “knocks the tappu drum”) for multiple temples in Queens, once responded when I asked him if it is up to the woman to know how to control her body: “they don’t really have any control over their bodies anyways” (July 24, 2015). He continued to explain his disdain for women’s trance due to an outward appearance that did not match his ideas of “proper” or traditional forms of femininity: “to me, seeing these 16, 17, and 18 year girls manifesting is not very attractive. I didn’t say it was fine for older women to manifest either. Like it doesn’t look proper” (ibid). Indo-Guyanese-American young adult men like Narayan, who is in his early twenties, believe that women should avoid trance, or “manifest,” “because the shakti can be too much for a girl to bear” (October 28, 2015). And as an Indo-Guyanese woman in her mid-sixties explained, “they [men] feel it’s a man’s thing to do” (October 11, 2016).
Such assertions might be interpreted as attempts to reinstate Indo- Guyanese masculinity within the North American context. According to a Head Pujari in his mid-twenties who officiates weekly services at his home in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, women are more susceptible to trance in the form of “possession” by “demonic spirits” (June 11, 2015). For instance, “Dutchmen” are said to be most often attracted to beautiful women, especially the daughters of wealthy families in NYC or Guyana. When they “attach themselves” to women, female hosts take on masculine traits such as aggression and anger, “masculine facial features,” “speak through a [deep] male voice,” and exhibit a great deal of physical strength. To appease the Dutchman, this Head Pujari gives him cheese, bread, liquor, and cigarettes and then must physically fight the Dutchman until he leaves the woman.
Furthermore, there is an undercurrent of anxiety that stems from potential uncertainty of the outcomes and mishaps that a family or household may incur if a female relative goes against tradition and trances, or “plays,” in public. As I have been told by Indo-Guyanese-American men and women across generational and class lines, Indian women in Guyana traditionally were prohibited and/or discouraged from engaging in trance activities in public in order to avoid the stigma associated with the uncontrollable and undisciplined Indian female body. Kevin, an Indo-Guyanese-American young man in his early thirties with a middle- class background who identifies his father as “Madrasi” and mother as “Hindu” from “North India,” explained how the disavowal of women’s trance on the part of both of his parents was to protect Indian female chastity from corruption. He described how Indo-Guyanese of his parent’s generation “don’t want women shown in that nature. It’s too sexual. Too revealing. I think it may be too provocative” (December 1, 2014). In his view, a young woman who trances in public among men risks damaging her reputation regardless of her intentions or sincere devotion because “unfortunately libido overtakes religious devotion for guys. Guys looking are not really thinking of her religious conviction” (ibid.). In addition, an Indian woman who tranced in public was stigmatized as unruly and thus jeopardized her (and her family’s) reputation and the prospects for marriage. Hence, the author of the aforementioned blog recounts another encounter while “sitting on a New York City train listening to my fellow Guyanese, on their way home from kovil [goddess temple],” when she overheard two men alluding to both the inevitability of trance for young females and the stigma that it would accrue: “Oh! Don’t take young girls to Kali Church, dem go start play and then wha ya’ go do bai” (January 22, 2016). Or as conveyed in the statement between the two women in the above scenario: “What if all of dem start to play?”
Accordingly, since the perception is that Indian women are physically and mentally “weaker” than their male counterparts and in perpetual need of their stronger male counterparts to protect them from potential downfall, there is also the sensibility that to not keep women from the harmful consequences of trance, or at least certain forms of trance, is failure to fulfill a moral obligation. As one Indo-Guyanese-American Head Pujari has repeatedly told me, “it is a shame what [other Kali temples] are doing to their women” (February 2011). He made that remark in reference to other Kali temples in NYC and their sister temples in Guyana and Trinidad where large numbers of young women in the congregation undergo highly strenuous forms of trance at weekly puja services, unlike what takes place at his temple. In his view, many Head Pujaris of other temples utilize manipulative techniques, such as specific mantras and prayers, to induce women to trance.
Some Indo-Guyanese-American women share similar outlooks and experiences. Maureen is a woman in her mid-sixties, who is well-educated, held a steady career as a textile engineer for a company in Manhattan, and describes herself as having prophetic gifts as a “reincarnated shaman” whose trance episodes she describes as powerful enough to “destroy the whole place.” She explained to me how a particular Head Pujari in Brooklyn, who felt she threatened his authority, had tried to force her to trance during a particular Sunday puja service. She described how “when he figured out I had something more powerful than he had, he thought he could take some of my gifts away. They do a lot of obeah—black magic— to try and scare me” (July 16, 2015). She described this incident as an attempt by the Head Pujari to force her to prove that she had the ability to withstand a powerful trance experience:
I think he wanted to see how strong I was. He tried very hard to make me manifest and he started his bullshit, and he tried for a good 45 minutes and finally gave up ... Another day—he must have done research. [His father] used to dig graves, evoke spirits ... I don’t know who gave him the mantra.
In front of Sangani Baba, he said a totally different mantra. I felt the change. But I know what to do to suppress it. (ibid.)
According to Maureen, she was capable of protecting herself because she had the correct knowledge and “power” that were necessary to “suppress” the Head Pujari’s attempts to make her “manifest,” or trance. At the same time, and with great dismay, she holds the opinion that the majority of Indo-Guyanese women do not have this kind of knowledge:
The thing is, is if you look at the women who go to those temples, eight out of ten of them can barely read their name! They’re being fooled. It’s not like they know any better or want to know any better. The rule in all these Kali temples is ‘mind your own business.’ If you ask questions, this makes you a bad person. Nobody tells you the truth. (February 14, 2016)
In a hyperbolic fashion, Maureen expresses the viewpoint that the majority of women who attend Kali temples in NYC, whom she characterizes as uneducated Indo-Guyanese immigrants, unwittingly subject themselves to “being fooled.” She, however, ultimately blames the “very male,” or domineering patriarchal leadership styles of such temples and their Head Pujaris who allegedly take advantage of “weak” women and mislead them down a path of ignorance and destruction, often for quick financial gain. More importantly, her primary concern is how, in her view, such exploitative Head Pujaris utilize trance as a means or vehicle to legitimize their temple establishment, to convince onlookers and give the appearance of someone who “has Mother,” or “has deity” and, in this case, the presiding deity. To “have deity,” (or deota; devta) means a deity chooses to reside in a person permanently and regularly makes his or her presence known during congregational settings through the manifestation of particular styles of dance and bodily gestures. In the following excerpt, Maureen voices her frustrations:
Renny [Head Pujari] himself has no power. He can’t even fake a manifestation! He doesn’t have any deity. He cannot manifest. His brother does not manifest. Renny’s sister in-law, older daughter, wife. They don’t have deity.
All of a sudden she’s here [in NYC] and manifesting. It’s one way of taking the real problem and diverting it, instead of focusing on the real problem, which is she’s a slut, if she starts ‘manifesting,’ suddenly she’s something pure? Ninety percent of people you see are basically faking. It’s more now a competition. (ibid.)
The view that individuals, especially those in positions of power, may be “faking” their trance is another common line of discussion among Indo- Guyanese-Americans. As with Maureen, one’s stance about another person “faking” manifestation may shift depending on the context, interpersonal relations, and conflicts of interest and loyalty. Nonetheless, “proof’ that someone “has deity” is supposed to be contingent upon him or her convincingly manifesting a deity’s signature sonic and somatic codes. Ironically, Maureen’s criticism of the Head Pujari’s wife as a “slut” who “starts ‘manifesting’” presents, however unintentionally, a reversal and redeployment of women’s trance from its historically stigmatized status to a technology of the spirit that through sincere devotion is capable of restoring a woman’s dignity and morality, of helping her to become “pure.”