Saturday, 22 June 2013

POV: Religious Trances or Mental Disease?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy- All Rights Reserved- Photo Crop


In virtually all the Sufi dargahs I visited, from the shrine of Bahadur Shaheed in Varanasi to the one of Mira Ali Datar near Ahmedabad, I was stunned by the sight of women (a few men as well) entering into trances in front of the saints' tombs.

I initially thought these trances were caused by the religious fervor of these women, particularly in the ethereal "presence" of a saint...a syndrome colloquially called hajri. Being in a trance signified the entrance of the deceased saint in the body of the entranced person, to rid it from ailments, from jinns and other undesirable symptoms.

From my casual observations, these trances varied in their intensity from person to person. Some were completely oblivious of their surroundings, whilst others screeched and suddenly lunged at anyone who approached them with a camera. Some were accompanied by husbands, sisters and other family members, while others were alone.

At the shrine of Bahadur Shaheed, a woman supposedly in a trance tried to throw a rock at my head, whilst another in Mira Datar shoved me rather violently, and then apologized when she was out of her trance, saying she was unaware she did so.

I witnessed a significant number of women in the shrines of Srinagar sobbing and muttering supplications to the interred saints....but trances are different, and I concluded these are caused by mental disease.

Schizophrenia most commonly expresses itself as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, which may be what the “hajri” manifestations are. I’ve witnessed seemingly perfectly normal people arrive at these dargahs, socialize with their families and friends…then walking over to an area closer to the tomb itself, and slowly bring themselves to a crescendo of repetitive, and violent, erratic outbursts of physical activity that include rolling on the floor, banging their heads on pillars and walls, and swaying their heads from side to side.

If you look closely at the cropped image above, you'll notice that the arm of the woman in the trance bears scars that must've been caused by self-cutting. Self cutting is a symptom of borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia.

In India, poverty-stricken and superstitious people who suffer from mental illness frequently employ faith healing as an alternative to psychiatric treatment, and it is mostly those that I see at these dargahs.