Shamanic elements in the religions of the Himalayan area and in the Indian sub-continent

An overview of rites and beliefs of shamanic origin in the Indo-Buddhist macro-area of ​​Central Asia and sub-continental India

di Richard Confalon
extract from the degree thesis

"Popular cults in the Himalayan area"(2014)
image: Citipati

The Himalayan area and that of the Indian sub-continent can be considered as a huge cauldron in which philosophical, religious and cultural systems have been generated. Hinduism, Buddhism, Lamaism, Bon, Tantrism, are just some of the religious / philosophical systems of this area; often these "systems" confronted each other, sometimes they came to collide, but there is no doubt that each one ended up representing a piece of a fascinating mosaic.

Let's examine the shamanic component present within these systems starting from Tantrism which in itself can be considered as a grandiose (and revolutionary) synthesis of the Sanskritized Hindu universe. In the meantime we will try to explain what Tantrism is starting from the origin of the term Tantra (root Tan "extend, continue, multiply") in the meaning of "succession, development, continuous process". Eliade writes about it [1]:

"Tantra would be that which extends knowledge tanyate, vistaryate, jnanam anena iti tantram [...] We do not know for what reason and following which circumstances it came to designate a grandiose philosophical and religious movement which is heralded from the fourth century of our era and takes the form of a pan-Indian "fashion" starting from the sixth century. It is really a "fashion": suddenly Tantrism enjoys immense popularity both among philosophers and theologians and among "practitioners" (ascetics, yogis, etc.) and its prestige is also affirmed among the popular strata. In a relatively short time, philosophy, mysticism, ritual, morality, iconography, even literature itself are influenced by Tantrism. It is a pan-Indian movement because it is assimilated by all the great religions of India and by all the "sectarian" schools . There is an important Buddhist and a Hindu tantrism; but Jainism itself embraces some tantric methods (except that of the left hand) and strong tantric influences are noted in Kashmir śivaism, in the great pancaratra movement (about 550), in the Bhagavata-Purana (about 600) and in other visnuated devotional currents. "

Many elements within Tantrism have a pre-Indo-European origin and appear as indigenous and tribal elements with very deep roots. Tantrism was extremely successful in the more popular and humble classes, aiming to abolish castes together with the concept of "pure" and "impure". Also, in it, there were both sexual and food ritual orgies, as well as the trance and possession and this resulted in harsh condemnation by the Brahmin authorities.

In these pages we will try to demonstrate what are the shamanic elements within this religious / philosophical complex, avoiding the risk of falling into the error of bringing together elements, practices and more that have little to do with each other. First of all it must be said that it is undeniable that there are several tantric rituals that have strong shamanic references. One of these, about which much has been written and discussed, is the Tibetan one of Tcöd (Gtchod). Eliade offers an accurate description [2]:

"In Tibet there is a tantric rite called Tcöd (Gtchod), which has a distinctly shamanic structure: it consists in offering one's flesh to the demons, to which they devour it - which singularly reminds the initiatory dismemberment of the future shaman by the "demons" and the souls of the ancestors. Here is the summary given by R. Bleichsteiner: to the sound of a drum made of human skulls and a trumpet made from a femur, we give ourselves to dance and we invite the spirits to come and celebrate. The power of meditation raises a goddess with a bared sword; it rushes on whoever offers the sacrifice, decapitates him and tears him to pieces; then the demons and beasts throw themselves on these throbbing leftovers, devouring its flesh and drinking its blood. The words to be pronounced refer to certain Jatakas, where it is said how the Buddha, in a previous incarnation, gave his own flesh to hungry animals and anthropophagous demons. However, despite this Buddhist narrative - concludes Bleichesteiner - here we are dealing with a sinister mystery that dates back to more primitive times. "

With the company Tcöd we therefore have a "mystical transvaluation" of a shamanic initiation scheme and the bloodiest side of this story is none other than the death and resurrection that occurs in shamanic initiation, where demons tear apart the body of the future shaman; for Eliade, Indo-Tibetan Tantrism spiritualized even more radically the initiatory scheme of "putting to death" at the hands of the demons. Other shamanic elements are also found in this testimony attributed to Queen Tse spon bza who, it is said, was a bitter enemy of Buddhism above all of tantric matrix and a passionate follower of the Bon religion [3]:

“… What they call Kapala, this is a human skull placed on a rack; what they call basuta are scattered viscera; what they call a 'bone trumpet' is a human bone; what they call 'sanctuary of the great field' (maha-ksetra-tirtham?) is a human skin stretched out on the ground; what they call mandalas are colors that shine opulently; what they call 'dancers' are men who wear garlands of bones… this is not religion (ie chos, dharma), this is the evil that India has taught Tibet. "

In this passage there are some elements of undoubted shamanic origin. First of all the human bone trumpet (which is usually a femur or a tibia) is an extremely common object among Himalayan area shamans; this instrument does not emit any sound perceptible by man but audible only by otherworldly entities; the dancers with bone garlands instead refer to some shamanic costumes where the attempt to imitate the human skeleton is evident: the symbolism of the skeleton it is an archaic symbolism, the bones, death represent a death and an initiatory rebirth. Eliade states in this regard that the skeleton present in the shamanic costume summarizes and actualizes the drama of initiation, that is the drama of death and resurrection.

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It is also possible to venture the idea that the scattered entrails always represent the initiatory dismemberment by demons of the future shaman, while the discourse becomes extremely more complex when it comes to the skulls or kapala in that Sanskrit means head. The presence of skulls within the tantric ceremonies is linked to the customs of an ascetic śivaita sect, the Aghori, whose relationship with Tantrism is evident. Aghoris eat and drink in human skulls, frequent cemeteries, and practiced cannibalism until recently. It is an ascetic sect heir to an even more ancient and dark sect, the Kapalika, or the "bearers of skulls", who worshiped Śiva in his most terrifying aspect of Mahakala (the Great Destroyer), and can easily be confused with i vamacari tantric (tantric ascetics "of the left hand") even if they are distinguished for bringing to excesses orgiastic practices and ritual cruelty [4].

We now come to Tantric Yoga, which differs considerably from Patanjali's classical yoga thanks to the inclusion of indigenous pre-Indo-European elements. Classical yoga cannot be absolutely confused with shamanism and much less can it be traced back to the idea of ​​an "ecstatic" technique. If its purpose is the achievement of perfect autonomy, or ecstasy, in shamanism there is the desperate search to reach the world of spirits through the magical flight. The only point in common between these two phenomena is the departure from time and the abolition of history [5]:

«The ecstasy of the shaman serves to recover the primordial freedom and beatitude of the times in which, according to myths, man could physically ascend and entertain himself with the Gods. For his part, Yoga culminates in the unconditioned state of samadhi or sahaja, in the perfect spontaneity of the jivanmukta, the "liberated of life". From a certain point of view it can be said that the jivanmukta has abolished time and history: its spontaneity it somehow resembles the heavenly existence of primeval Man remembered by the myths. "

If it was previously stated that the only element in common that classical Yoga presents with shamanism is only the exit from history, the comparison between shamanism and Tantric Yoga offers much more numerous points in common due to the absorption of pre-Indo-European folk elements (such as folk magic). Especially in Tibet and in the Himalayan area there are "meditation techniques" where the yogi is invited to imagine his body as if it were a corpse and his intelligence as if it were a terrifying goddess armed with a knife and holding a skull in the other hand ("Think of it cutting off the head of the corpse and tearing the body apart and throwing the pieces into the skull as an offering to the gods") [6].

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Another exercise consists in imagining one's body as a "luminous and enormous skeleton, from which gushes flames so large as to fill the Void of the Universe". In this sense, we have already had the opportunity to explain the symbolism of the human skeleton present both in some Tibetan tantric ceremonies and in the costume of the shaman. Finally, a third meditation proposes to the yogi to imagine as if he were transformed into one dhaikini [7] irritated, intent on tearing the skin from the body [8]:

«Stretch this skin to cover the Universe […]. And on it pile up your bones and your flesh. So when the bad spirits are at the height of intoxication, imagine that the irritated Dhaikini takes the skin and rolls it up […] and throws it to the ground with force, reducing it, like all its contents, to a pulpy mass of flesh and bone, which hordes of produced beasts are about to devour. " 

In this last "exercise" we find two symbolisms, the first, evident, is that of initiatory dismemberment towards the shaman by "demonic" identities. The other instead is, in my opinion, that of the Cosmic Egg (Brahmanda) according to which "one's skin is used to envelop the Universe". That ofCosmic Egg it is a very complex symbolism, found in numerous cultures (India, Greece, Iran, Polynesia, Phenicia, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and also African cultures such as those of Pangwe of West Africa), moreover the symbol of the Cosmic Egg has been traced also in Central America and the west coast of South America. Eliade attributes to the Cosmic Egg a meaning of "rebirth", obviously initiatory rebirth, which goes well with that of dismemberment, while Guénon offers a much more detailed explanation of this symbolism in his work completely dedicated to traditional symbolism [9].

Another common element between tantric yoga and shamanism is that of the gods pilgrimages, a theme that will be explored in another chapter; here it is appropriate to make a brief mention of two Nepalese pilgrimages, that of Kalingchok and Thulo Sailung. The first is dedicated to the great Goddess Kali Mai while Thulo Sailung to the "White Lord of the earth". Here is what Tautscher writes about it [10]:

"The rituals on these two mountains, for the Tamangs, form a complementary male-female ritual unit; at the same time they reflect differing accommodations of the shamanic tradition resulting from the rivalry between the two great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism. Kalingchok is primarily regarded as a fierce female deity closely related to the Hindu pantheon. Popular tradition emphasizes her violent and bloodthirsty aspect in which the shamanic animal sacrifice for the benefit of the living is considered essential. By contrast, Thulo Sailung is seen as the seat of a male territorial deity and as a Buddhist pilgrimage site from which the fierce bloodthirsty female deities are banned. The Chorten on its summit stress the mountain's role as a Buddhist realm where the souls of the deceased are propitiated. "

In these pilgrimages, Tantric and shamanic elements appear, fused into Hindu and Buddhist realities: the two mountains represent one the Great Lord (Sakta male principle, Thulo Sailung), the other the Great Goddess (Sakti female principle, Kalingchock). While the mountain of Thulo Sailung is dedicated to pilgrimages of Buddhist origin, Kalingchock pilgrimages are of Hindu origin; however, the shamanic presence is present in both places. In this context, the pilgrimage to Kalingchock is considered more interesting. In pilgrimages there is always an extremely popular origin which often has "excesses"; in the case of Kalingchock we can find many of these elements such as the sacrifice of a goat to the great Goddess Kali who appears as a bloody deity, who is often depicted in tantric iconography with a necklace of skulls and a kilt made of human arms on the body of the god Śiva (Syâmâ Kâli or Daiksinâ Kâli). In his short essay on the sacrifice of the goat to the Goddess Kali in Bengal Suchitra Samanta defines it thus [11]:

"Kali the Hindu Goddess Time, is a ubiquitous presence in contemporary rural and urban Bengali life and occupies a historic place as Calcutta's patron deity. Her prototypes of her go back to pre-Vedic India. Kali was incorporated into the orthodox Hindu textual tradition in the myths of the Devi-Mahatmya, or Candi, as this sixth-century AD text is known n Bengal. She subsequently became the chief divinity as Female Principle (Sakti, Force, Creatrix) in the esoteric Sakta cult, which was especially prevalent in eastern India around the sixteenth century. "

The sacrifice of the goat in Kalingchock is very similar to that described by Suchitra Samanta with the difference that the sex of the animal changes, since in Bengal the goats are exclusively male. There are many festivals and pilgrimages dedicated to the various "manifestations" of the Goddess and many of them have a popular and bloody background where animal sacrifice and blood play a leading role, such as in the Devikot Jatra festival in Dolakha, where the goat is replaced by a buffalo [12].

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So it is easy to understand the reasons why a deity like Kali has enjoyed enormous success within Shamanism. In the first place she has extremely popular traits, moreover her origin is pre-Vedic and therefore indigenous; finally, her cults, which in the past were often rejected by the religious and political elite, on the contrary, found wide acceptance in the most humble.

The same goes for the God Śiva since also in this case we can speak of a pre-Vedic divinity. The first trace of it can be found in an ancient amulet found in Moenhjo Daro [13], it depicts a deity in Yoga position and surrounded by animals; this is most likely the "version" of Śiva called Paśupati [14]. This is not the only testimony in Moenhjo Daro of a link with contemporary Indian "religion" since numerous clay statuettes representing female figures have been found and suggest the presence of a cult of the Mother Goddess. [15]


[1] M. Eliade, Yoga: immortality and freedom, Milan, Rizzoli, 1999, p. 32.

[2] M. Eliade, Shamanism and the techniques of ecstasy, Rome, Ed. Mediterranee, 2005, p. 463.

[3] A. Barati, The Tantric Tradition, Rome, Ubaldini Editore, 1977, p. XX.

[4] M. Eliade, Yoga: immortality and freedom.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] dhaikini: female supernatural beings in tantric rituals sometimes as instructors of the adepts sometimes as assistants to the deities; in Hindu Tantrism they are related to Kali.

[8] M. Eliade, Yoga, op. cit.

[9] R. Guénon, Symbols of Sacred Science, Milan, Adelphi, 1994.

[10] G. Tautscher, Himalayan mountain Cults, Kathmandu, Vajira, 2007, p. 109.

[11] St. Samantha, The self-Animal and Divine Digestion: Goat sacrifice to the Goddes Kali in Bengal, The Journal of Asian Studies 53 no 3 August 1994.

[12] CJ Miller, Faith Healers in the Himalayas, Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1997.

[13] City of pre-Indo-European origin belonging to the "Indus Valley Civilization" datable to around 3300-1300 BC

[14] S. Piggott, Prehistoric India, Milan, Mondadori, 1964, p. 218.

[15] Ivi, p. 218.


  • A. Barati, The Tantric Tradition, Rome, Ubaldini Editore, 1977
  • M. Eliade, Yoga: immortality and freedom, Milan, Rizzoli, 1999
  • M. Eliade, Shamanism and the techniques of ecstasy, Rome, Ed. Mediterranee, 2005
  • R. Guénon, Symbols of Sacred Science, Milan, Adelphi, 1994
  • CJ Miller, Faith Healers in the Himalayas, Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1997
  • S. Piggott, Prehistoric India, Milan, Mondadori, 1964
  • St. Samantha, The self-Animal and Divine Digestion: Goat sacrifice to the Goddes Kali in Bengal, The Journal of Asian Studies 53 no 3 August 1994
  • G. Tautscher, Himalayan mountain Cults, Kathmandu, Vajira, 2007

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