I’m still working my way slowly through Bruce Kapferer’s tour de force on Sri Lankan sorcery practices, The Feast of the Sorcerer. I share with Kapferer the view that an accurate understanding of magic and sorcery offers more valuable insights into the nature of communities and the formation of human consciousness than any amount of social or psychological theory.

Almost every one of Kapferer’s generalizations jibes with what I’ve read about sorcery or witchcraft in other, very different societies (Pueblo, Nahuat, Songhai, Herero, Melanesia). It’s interesting to see how sorcery fits into a Buddhist worldview. The major word for the condition of being ensorcelled is huniyam or suniyam, also the name for the demonic deity most closely associated with sorcery practices. Its derivation is unclear, but

Aduras (exorcists) and some shrine priests (kapuralas) indicate that it is borrowed from the Tamil cuniyam. The lexical definition of this word, and its derivative compounds, carries many of the meanings of Sinhalese ritual and everyday usage: for example, such senses as barrenness, defilement, ruin. Some exorcists tell me that the word comes from the Sanskrit sunya, “void,” and this has similar meaning in Tamil, as, for example, “nonexistence, vacuum, nonentity, defilement.” The notion of sunya has much more resonance with the existential nature of sorcery elaborated in sorcery and antisorcery rites and in the experiences of sorcery victims.

Note that the very ambiguity of the concept of “void” serves its purpose here. The “negative emptiness” of nihilism – a very different, perhaps opposite goal from the “positive emptiness” of nirvana – is of course what is invoked, because

The ultimate effect of sorcery is the radical extinction or obliteration of the victim or the whole circumstance of the victim’s existence, the social relations and the means whereby victims sustain their life world. The fear that people have of sorcery is that it strikes at both the victim and the ground of the victim’s being. The major myths and rites of sorcery express themes of cosmic destruction and renewal. They indicate the condition of sorcery as being a virtual return to the void from which existence springs. Sorcery projects death, actual physical extinction, which is also a chief metaphor for the anguish of sorcery as a kind of death in the midst of life, a living death. The extinction threatened by sorcery is not a release from existence, the source of suffering, as in the achievement of nibbana (nirvana), but an obliteration in the continuity of existence. Again in the myths and major antisorcery rites, the force of the sorcerer and of sorcery is ranged against the Buddha teaching and the ultimate release from existence and suffering. The figure with whom sorcery and the destructive powers of Suniyama are often associated with is Devadatta, a kinsman and follower of Gautama Buddha who broke with his teaching.

“An obliteration in the continuity of existence”: whereas in other societies the ultimate horror involves simple erasure of being (and descendents), the Buddhist influence here makes the situation more complex and – I would have to say – perhaps more accurate. Whether one lives in a relatively atomized, modern urban environment or in a more traditional village setting, one’s reality as a social being arises from one’s participation in a complex web of interactions and attachments. The trick is to interact without getting too caught up in one’s attachments, without surrendering to negative emotions like envy and jealousy, which, in some circumstances, can ensorcell all by themselves. “People may not be aware of the dangers of their talk or realize the envy of their thoughts, but such action can nonetheless cause harm and in effect is sorcery.” Attention and intention are everything.

The notion of binding or tying (bandana,* vb. bandinava) is basic to sorcery action. Sorcerers tie their charms to their victims or bind their victims to their destructive work. The idea of binding or tying has strong associations of union with the sorcerer and of constraint to the terms of a relation dictated by the sorcerer. The term hira bandana (tight or marriage bond) is a sorcery trope that indicates the controlling intimacy of the destructive sorcerer and his victim. Sorcery is infused with the metaphors of sexuality, and these express the intense intimacy of sorcery’s relations as well as its capacity to strike at the core of generative being. . . .

The bond of sorcery limits and denies life. In effect, it is an antirelation, and in the rites to overcome sorcery, the aim is to cut (kapanava) such bonds. . . . The ultimate object of [antisorcery] rites is to tie or bind victims back into the life-regenerative aspects of their life world and to break the life-threatening bond that sorcerers and their demonic agents have established with them. Indeed, the bonds of the sorcerer must be broken, and sorcerers must themselves be bound and contained. Several ritual experts in antisorcery have described to me how they capture the essence of the agents of sorcery in bottles and throw them into the sea. At Kabalava, a major shrine to Suniyam, his destructive potency is understood to be constrained in a book (Kabala Patuna) bound by nine threads.

As I have argued here before, the intimacy of lovers and the intimacy of predator and prey are not necessarily as far apart as we would like to believe. “You either live in love, or you live in fear,” Einstein proclaimed. But we shouldn’t be so naive to assume that this can be a simple, polar opposition. There is a bit of fear even in the strongest love relationship. As the new-to-me blogger Doc Rock (thanks, Tom and Beth!) wrote just yesterday,

War is a conventional, convenient (and until recently all-male) anvil on which to try Character. But it’s not the ultimate test. Not really. Experience has recently taught me that Love is a far greater test of character than War. In Love, one is even more vulnerable, even more at risk, even more fragile, than in War.

And all this talk of binding and testing brings me back to the Bible, once again, and that brief, disquieting story about a boy and his aged father traveling up into the mountains with a load of brushwood . . .

*Yes, this is a cognate with the Hindi word from which the English bandanna derives.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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