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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Shamanism

A spiritual or religious practice possibly originating among Siberian and Ural-Altaic peoples, but which has spread to other geographical areas such as south-east Asia, Oceania and some North American Indian tribes. The name derives from the Tungus language, spoken by a people located in Eastern Siberia. Helena P. Blavatsky has pointed out that Shamans (in Asia) are not Buddhists, but a sect of the old Bon religion of Tibet. Both men and women may be Shamans. Blavatsky states that Shamans are magicians or rather sensitives or mediums artificially developed (TG, p. 296/7).

The shaman functions as priest and medical doctor; in the more backward groups he or she may direct communal sacrifices and, for a fee, accompany the soul of a dead person to the other world. The shaman is said to have the power to leave the body in the astral vehicle at will. Becoming a shaman is a process that varies from country to country; it may be an inherited role or sometimes gained by individual choice. The candidate receives instruction from a qualified shaman and undergoes a series of initiatory trials. The Shamanist initiatory trials often include symbolic death and resurrection.

The shaman as a functionary is to be found in many countries, many belief systems and under many names. In Korea he is known as the Pan-su; in South Western Australia he is called the mulgarradock; in New Guinea one of the names is nepu. In North America most Indian tribes include shamans or “medicine-men” who are “valued as dignitaries in the tribe and the greatest respect is paid to them by the whole community, not only for their skill in their materia medica, but more especially for their tact in magic and mysteries. . . . In all councils of war and peace they have a seat with the chiefs, are regularly consulted before any public step is taken, and the greatest deference is paid to their opinions” (J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, vol. I, pt. I, p. 356; single vol. ed., p. 88). In Tibet there are a number of functionaries that might be described as Shamans; for instance, the term Naljorpa (written rnal hbyorpa) refers to an ascetic who possesses magic powers. (Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1932; Dover, 1971, pp. 157-166). In the ¬g Veda (X, 136) of India there is a description of a personage that must surely be a Shaman. It tells of the muni, long-haired (kein), clad in soiled yellow, girdled with the wind, and into whom the gods enter.

P.S.H.

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