Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 8-26-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Rebecca J Lester


This dissertation is an ethnographic study of a Hindu healing temple in North India, popular for treating psychological ailments that manifest as spirit afflictions. Religious healing centers constitute the single most popular pathway of mental health care for Indian women. These folk sites, based on etiologies of supernatural affliction and healing through participation in possession trance rituals, are, however, condemned by an Indian state that espouses biomedical psychiatry as the only legitimate mental health system for the country. In the context of such a polarized mental health arena in India, this dissertation seeks to understand what makes religious healing the preferred mode of mental health treatment for the vast majority of Indian women. I argue that religious healing is especially attractive to women because it offers them a range of therapeutic strategies that lie within the purview of women's everyday religion and are conceived as being flexible and self-directed, making women the agents of their own healing.

By focusing on the lives of the long-time healing seekers and their attendant families in the temple, this dissertation demonstrates how the rhetorical practices and bodily techniques employed by the women as part of the everyday treatment process in the temple become efficacious for them. I show how the temple's healing practices, deriving from traditions of female Hindu religiosity, constitute a process of gradual and incremental self-transformation for the women as healing is `practiced' in a conscious manner and its therapeutic effects are discerned over a period of sustained engagement.

The dissertation, drawing on literature in medical and psychological anthropology, the anthropology of religion, postcolonial studies and the substantial field of `women and possession', establishes how religious healing sites serve as microcosms for investigating the vastly complex engagements of women in a transitioning gendered field of family and society in contemporary India.


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