I do not believe in the existence of evil spirits. Many, perhaps most people, do. Had I so believed, I would not have hesitated to conclude that I must have been possessed to have done some of the stupid things I did in life. But that’s another story.
During the 1960s I witnessed several Kali Mai Pujas conducted in my community. The major parts of the ceremony consisted of blood and violence – the sacrifice of a goat and the whipping of the evil spirits from persons who were thought to be possessed and brought for the purpose. In the frenzy which was generated by the beating drums, the possessed person would begin dancing in a hypnotic trance to the pulsating drumbeat. The officiating priest would then proceed to mercilessly beat the evil spirit from the possessed person with a ‘wild cane’ until the possessed person fainted, a sign that the evil spirit had departed. Several members of the audience would then display signs of possession and begin dancing similarly. They would also have the same treatment meted out to them.
In both Christianity and Islam, the existence of evil spirits is recognized and permissible rites of exorcism are performed. I am not aware that these rites involve violence but this accusation has been made from time to time, particularly against Christians.
Sometime in the 1960s during August school holidays, a member of my community allegedly became possessed by an evil spirit. According to the ‘old people,’ a ‘jumbie’ had taken hold of him. He would have daily episodes of body stiffening and contortion and dozens of people would have to restrain him for fear that he might harm himself or someone else. When asked while in this state, he would indicate that he was an evil spirit. One doctor who visited said that he was suffering from ’hysteria’ but no one paid any attention. Religious rites were performed on several occasions. None was successful, at least immediately or shortly thereafter. After a couple of months the symptoms disappeared and have never returned.
About ten years later, while a student in London, I heard an urgent knocking on my apartment door late one evening. A fellow tenant, a young lady, requested my assistance with her boyfriend who, she said, was suffering an ‘attack.’ She didn’t say of what. When I went into her apartment, her boyfriend was on the floor rolling about and manifesting the same symptoms as the member of my community ten years earlier. The doctor was called and he diagnosed ‘hysteria.’ He explained that it was a psychiatric condition, the origin of which was unknown and for which there was no known cure. He administered a sedative injection and the patient went off to sleep. He was fine the next day. The young lady and her boyfriend broke up some time later and I lost track.
Believers in evil spirits justify the latter’s existence on religious grounds or by phenomena, witnessed by them, which cannot be explained. The two episodes of ‘hysteria’ have confirmed my certainty that no such thing as evil spirits exist.
The tragic case of 14 year old Sangeeta Persaud of Canal Number Two attracted much press coverage and controversy over the past few weeks. The press conference presided over by Bishop Juan Edghill has clarified the circumstances leading to her unfortunate death. Sangeeta had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Some time later she displayed the symptoms which caused her mother to take her to their pastor fearing that she might have been possessed by an evil spirit. After exorcism failed, Sangeeta was then taken to hospital where she died of an unknown cause.
The first stop for anyone displaying unusual physical or mental symptoms of distress is the doctor not the priest. Sangeeta should have received medical attention as soon as she began to display signs that something was wrong with her. When she was taken to her priest, he should have urged the mother and grandmother to take the child to the doctor or to a hospital. He did not and valuable time was lost while the exorcism was being performed. Sangeeta was kept all day while prayers and other religious activities were going on. After she was taken to hospital it seemed as if no diagnosis could have been made in the time available or any treatment offered might have been too late. A place existed for simultaneous or subsequent religious intervention. In this case it was the sole intervention in the critical stages of the child’s illness.
The evidence of the post mortem suggests that Sangeeta was not abused even though allegations are still being made and an investigation has been launched by the Ministry of Health. But the evidence did suggest that she was ill and did not receive timely medical attention.
Since we do not know what Sangeeta was suffering from, we cannot say whether she would have died anyway. But it is dangerous in any circumstance to substitute or delay, even for a short while, religious attention for medical attention. (www.conversationtree.gy).