This interdisciplinary thesis integrates religious studies and ethnographic research in the analysis of psycho-physiological healing among Nepali traditional healers, including jhākris and mātās, and Bāul minstrels in West Bengal and Sikkim, India. Bāul singers draw influence from esoteric Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Muslim traditions. Historically situating the complex system of cultural and religious confluence in the Sahajiyā milieu of Bengal, I explore morphological connections between the yogic cultures of the Buddhist and Nāth Siddhas or “perfected ones” of early medieval northern India and modern Bengali Bāul minstrels. Among the Bāuls, tantric-yoga practices, or sādhanā, are embodied healing modalities, as they focus on perfecting the body as a center of sacred powers.
Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted with Nepali jhākris and mātās located in the rural Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim, while fieldwork with Bāuls was conducted in rural West Bengal, India. Jhākris are traditional healers who integrate a unique hybrid of indigenous healing modalities with tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions in their healing repertoires. Both of these groups stem from low-caste rural communities and are socioeconomically marginalized, operating outside of institutional religious contexts.
The thesis focuses on models of embodiment adopted by these practitioners and ritual healing practices connected to their embodied theories. I draw from medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman's conception of health care systems to present culturally variant health care systems among research participants, accompanied by unique orientations towards bodily health and healing. The role of music to engender bodily transformation is also central to my analysis, and its application by practitioners in my ethnography illustrates a modality of sonic healing. The underlying argument is grounded in my hypothesis regarding "healing as a totality," in which healing is understood as a dynamically interwoven process that integrates the various components of the human body and selfhood as well as sociopolitical critique and subversion.