In looking at the material world around us, it is easy to suppose that everyone sees the same things, the same way, the whole world over.
This is not the case.
Most of us, living in what we call ‘western’ and ‘modern’ societies tend to look at the world as a very material place. We may have beliefs that transcend the material world, but in our day to day activities, we tend to look at what we can see and touch. As an example, if someone in the society we live in becomes sick they will probably go to the hospital, call a paramedic, or consult a biomedical trained physician. The reason’s for this are rooted in our general belief systems about what it means to live, age, and die.
In our society, we see that these processes are governed by systems that exist within the body. These systems can generally be seen, measured, and analyzed by our material technology. The same is true of the monetary returns we face in careers, the debt we incur during the course of living, and even the legal bonds we make with loved ones, friends, and family. We can actually measure the materiality of our relationships based on legal documents, inherited genetics, and other material means. In the ‘modern west’, we are certainly living in a material world. It is easy to suppose that the rest of the world is living in the same world we are, but to suppose so, would be a mistake.
Much of the population of this planet lives in a non-material world that is governed by things that our most sophisticated technology cannot begin to sense or measure. These societies and cultures are more concerned about mystic beings than market returns. They are also less concerned about the biological causes of illness as compared to the reasons that sorcery is being directed at them by human or non human entities. The Balinese people, for example operate within rigid social constructs in order to avoid causing offense. This often entails denying one’s emotions, urges, or even physical discomfort in order to keep from becoming the object of someone’s jealousy, anger, or, in many cases, love interest (Wikan, 1987. pp 352-363).
The Balinese are not alone in believing that it is possible for an individual to be affected through the intervention of forces existing outside of the material world. The Sama Dilaut Tawi-Tawi also take great precautions to avoid becoming the target of black magic, non-human creatures, or the living dead. For instance, the magla’ankuliah ceremony is a way of curing a particular type of sick person. The Sama Dilaut Tawai Tawi have a belief system that says that a sick person is sometimes ill because a spirit has become offended and placed bits of foreign matter within the body of the offending human. A specialist is required to diagnose and to cure such a situation when it arises (Nimmo. 2001. pp160-1).
Often, in cultures that rely on shamanic healers, witchcraft, mediums, or other supernatural specialists there is a discriminating and arduous process that the practitioner must go through in order to become qualified to heal. IGR Panji Tisna conducted an interview with Mr. Ketut Arsana, a healer in Ubud, Indonesia in which Mr. Arsana goes into great detail about the tribulations which led him to become a healer. Far from simply attending a healing school, Mr Arsana actually had to die in order to become an initiate. After recovering from his death he was able to acquire some of the necessary skills he needed in order to become an adept healer. At one point, he was reading a foreign language text incorrectly and became ill until he learned to read it right! (Tisna. 2001. pp108-13).
These are the sorts of experiences and beliefs that shape the non-material world of billions of human beings on this planet. While they are very different from our ‘modern western’ view, it is important to accept them as valid if we are to understand people that do not share the same belief paradigm we live in. This idea however, is not good enough for many adherents of ‘modern western’ belief systems. Instead they like to look at the different systems in non ‘modern west’ cultures and dissect them with a critical bioscientific eye. This has been done in Hindu ecstatic celebrations (Ward. 1984), Sufic rituals, and yogic trance states (Howell. 1989).
We can examine the world with a critical eye using our material tools and techniques, but we will never be able to understand the life in the non-material world unless we learn to step away from our individual cultural norms and experiences.
References: Howell, Julia Day. 1989. States of Consciousness and Javanese Ecstatics. In Creating Indonesian Cultures, edited by P. Alexander. Sydney, Australia: Oceania Publications.
Nimmo, H. Arlo. 2001. Magosaha: An Ethnography of th Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut. Honolulu: Univeristy of Hawaii Press (Distributed for Ateneo de Manila University Press.)
Tisna, I Gusti Raka Panji. 2001. Between Traditional Medicine and Antibiotics: An Interview with a Balinese Healer. In Bali Living in Two Worlds: A Critical Self-portrait, editied by U. Ramseyer and I.G.R.P.Tisna. Basel, Switzerland:Schwabe and Co.
Ward, Colleen. 1984. Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Psycho-Anthropological Analysis of Ritual Trance, Ceremonial Possession and Self-Mortification Practices. Ethos 12 (4(Winter): 307-334
Wikan, Unni. 1987. Public Grace and Private Fears: Gaiety, Offense, and Sorcery in Northern Bali. Ethos 15 (4(December)):337-364