Desires of the Recently Dead

Claire Schneid- Brown Bag Seminar: "Desires of the Recently Dead"
Claire Schneid- Brown Bag Seminar: “Desires of the Recently Dead”

16.10.2014. Death is an inevitable and ultimate truth. Art writer and critic Chris Townsend describes death as an event that cannot belong to us but rather only to those around us. It is such an impersonal phenomena that can neither be represented nor communicated by us. However, what happens when a community has a practice where dead have an ability to remain as a non-human entity in the human post human space? How do things take turn when dead have a power to communicate their desires through the living ones? How does the practice of ‘possession’ of a living by dead affect the judiciary system and other units of an indigenous community? Claire Scheid, a PhD candidate in the Study of Religions Department at National University of Ireland-University College Cork, in affiliation with Rajiv Gandhi University in India, studied this integrated system of ‘dead possessing the living’ among the indigenous ‘Adi’ community of Far Eastern Himalayan region of India.

In a brown bag seminar organized by Center for Sami Studies titled “Desires of the Recently Dead: the ‘Post Human Uyu’ in Contemporary Adi Society”, Scheid discussed the recent formalization of the indigenous religion (Donyi-Polo [Sun-Moon]) among the Adi in the Siang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, India as well as its relation to a unique practice where the ‘post-human uyu’, a non-human entity of the recently dead uses the living as a vehicle to communicate their desires. Through these possessions, the ‘post-human uyu’ sometimes express their material desires however, sometimes they are violent and try to harm the living. In such cases, these malevolent uyus are pacified through special ritual of burning (rather than burying) the remains of the dead by ritual specialists. Scheid’s dissertation viewed the death narration of the post- human uyu functioning as one of the primary methods of a community mourning and remembering the recently dead. Several videos of her interviews with the community people were shown in the seminar. Her conversation with the locals during the research showed that the account given by an ‘uyu’ through possession of living have been taken as a substantial information in solving several criminal cases. The primary concern of the floor discussion was the significant role played by this system of possessions on the Adi judiciary system and the possibility of using this system for exploitation of judiciary system for personal benefits

During the floor discussion, the audience in the seminar also raised several questions and provided interesting comments regarding the presentation. Marit Myrvoll, a social anthropologist, expressed her reservation on the use of the words ‘folklore’ and ‘black magic’ and suggested to use the word ‘culture’ instead. Scheid agreed that the term ‘black magic’ has no place in scholarship and clarified that such loaded terms only occurred in her presentation in English-language quotes from Adi community members themselves speaking about their own society. She also agreed that ‘folklore’ could be problematized and referred to the current debate in the academic folklore discipline between the use of ‘folk’ and ‘vernacular’. Myvroll also shared the similarities and parallels between Adi and Northern Sami/Norsk religious practices and perceptions towards death. On associate professor Torjer Olsen’s query, Scheid further elaborated about the formalization process of the indigenous religion Donyi Polo, creation of official book of directives comprising of the principles, outlines, rites and rules for the practitioners, in relation to the group and indigenous identity. Finally, Bjørn Tafjord, historian of religion inquired about the translation (not only linguistic but historical and cultural as well) of the process of possession in terms of religion instead of other disciplines. To which Scheid replied that when anything is about the things that affect someone’s faith as ‘uyu’, it has religious inference and there is a social equation between religion and culture, as exemplified in the Northeast Indian slogan “loss of religion is loss of culture.” The seminar ended on a note that this integrated system of possession of the living by ‘post-human uyu’ of the recently dead can be seen as a society’s ways of commemorating the deceased and formulation of self/group identity, and is shifting as part of the Adi community’s response to the rapid globalization in Arunachal Pradesh.

By Eman Udaya, a writer for FDCIP blog and student of Master’s degree Program in Indigenous Studies at UiT The Arctic University of Norway