Healing By Being Awake: The Shamanic Rite of Jagar in the Himalayas

The whole Himalayan village of Dunagiri was on fire, it seemed. Along with it, my body was ablaze with fever. Already mid-June and the monsoon rains hadn’t yet arrived. And along with the feeling of no-relief in sight, I’d been suffering with amebic dysentery for several months. Daily my fever was rising along with the hot season temps. 

I wasn’t alone in my suffering. Our cook, Panditji, had lost several cows due to suspicious illnesses within the same time. And his elder brother’s son had run off suddenly for no reason. 

These were no coincidences, Panditji assured me. An ancestor must be disturbed. We needed to find out what they wanted—and all our problems would be solved. 

I wasn’t shocked by his proclamation. I’d already lived in this remote Himalayan village for six months and I was used to the proximity of spirits. The villagers live side by side with these invisible residents who range from their departed relations to small-time gods whose job is to watch over tiny allotments of private property. Every year in the month of Shravana before Diwali, the disembodied are welcomed into the house to take part in the life of the family. They eat together. They join in the daily activities. And then they’re shown the door to haunt the jungle again with the return of the light. 

I was warned against going outside at night, lest one of these ghosts should harass me with a curse. I was told not to stand too close to the edge of a cliff, lest a billowy ghoul should lure me to my death. And men, in particular, were forbidden from collecting water from a natural spring because the devatā who guards it prefers only women to take it. An unsuspecting man who mistakenly took a drink would suffer the consequence of impotency. 

So it made perfect sense to Panditji that my ill health was due to the workings of some unhappy spirit. To appease him or her, Panditji arranged a jagar—an all-night shamanic healing ritual practiced in the hills that some scholars conclude predates the Vedas. It would be held at his ancestral village in the company of his entire family clan.  

When the auspicious astrological moment arrived, I boarded a mountain jeep along with Panditji, the driver (who was his distant cousin) and my partner, Piyush. I lay down in the backseat seeing the world go by upside down. From my vantage point, it seemed the sky itself was burning as we drove through the forest on fire.

We parked the jeep under the spread of a pre-historic banyan tree as old as time remembers and ascended the steep steps built into the earth towards Panditji’s ancestral village. For him, this was like entering a world wherein both sides—the living and deceased—cohabitate. There’s a thin sheath separating the visible from the invisible worlds, which is why it’s called one’s ancestral village.

What this means is that death is not a final separation. That crabby old auntie whom everyone barely tolerated hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s still there, along with all the innumerable members of Panditji’s paternal line from as far back as time remembers. 

The veneration of ancestors—a class of spirits known as pitṛns—is an ancient practice that still persists in out-of-the-way places like the Kumaoni foothills of the Himalayas. Included in the Vedic pantheon of beings, the ancestors are described in the Vāyu and Brahmaṇḍa Purāṇas according to their place within the hierarchy. Some are deceased relatives who attained either divine (devāḥ pitārāḥ) or ordinary (mānuṣyāh pitārāḥ) status upon death. Yet they all live among the living, occasionally entering the food someone is eating and are reborn right back in the same house. 

The ancestral village is also where extended family members meet to settle their grievances through jagar. Otherwise a cranky ancestor might wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting member of the living who suddenly (and unjustifiably) experiences too much of something for it to be a mere coincidence. A string of unexplained deaths of cattle, for example, was too much to ignore. Six months of a persistent illness defiant to any medical remedy was too much to take lightly. Something had to be done.

Afflictions are the nature through which the disembodied communicate with the embodied. Disease is the manifestation of a spirit’s dis-ease over something that was left unsettled while they were alive. So now they need this score settled or else these unexplained, uncontrollable things will keep happening. The jagar—held all night—is the remedy by which a state of “wakefulness” is the medium for healing. 

Jagar comes from the Sanskrit root, jāgṛ, which means “to go on burning, to be awake, to be watchful and to awaken.” It refers to the first state of consciousness described in the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad—waking (jāgrat). It’s distinguished from the two other states of the conscious mind—dreaming and deep sleep—by the quality of consciousness experienced. The awake state is akin to the rising sun leading to midday. Jāgrat is the moment in the installation of a deity in the temple when its eyes are opened. Then you can see, as opposed to dreaming and deep sleep when the eyes are closed. 

Like the ancestral space which is dually occupied by both the visible and invisible members of the same family, the mind also contains the space of both the seen and unseen. And in our normal mental functioning we pass through these three states of consciousness habitually in our lives, just as these villagers live seamlessly with their departed relations. 

Both the orthodox Vedic and the pre-Vedic folk traditions recognize a fourth state of consciousness that’s a different kind of wakefulness than the ordinary waking state. The Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad describes it as the “fourth” state of consciousness (turīya), which transcends waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. It is ever present, non-changing, and eternally watchful. It’s not killed when the body dies, as Krishna informs Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā. It’s the self-aware witness, the knower of all things. Achieving it is the goal of Vedānta, the end of the Vedas—the purpose of knowledge.

It’s also the state the dagariya—”the one who shows the way”—enters into during the village jagar to communicate with the members of the other unseen world and awaken the members of this world to its reality. Waking up to the witness state is achieved similarly in the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad as in the jagar—through the medium of sound or mantra. 

In the former, by chanting the three distinct syllables of the mantra Oṁ one achieves the wakeful fourth state of consciousness. “AUM divided into parts,” the Gaudapāda Kārika (commentary on the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad) reveals, “is viewed from the standpoint of its letters.” “A” invokes the waking state. “U” brings upon the state of dreaming. And the final letter, anusvāra “Ṁ” leads effortlessly to the state of deep sleep.

In reciting the mantra Oṁ, there naturally arises a gap—an unspoken fourth sound—which is also a state of conscious awareness distinct from the previous three. Yet it’s awake during waking, dreaming, and deep sleep as a passive witness. To attain the fourth state of consciousness is to be awake—yet dis-involved—within the threefold changing nature of the mind. It’s a state of supreme neutrality, like a patient and wise judge presiding over a complicated case with many perspectives. 

In Vedānta, the goal of the tapasvin (“the ascetic who enters the fire of knowledge”) is to burn through the boundaries between the visible and invisible by continuously bringing her attention to the gap, the fourth state, while chanting Oṁ. In the folk practice of jagar, the shaman (dagariya) enters the center of the ritual fire and shows the way to a space neutral to the living and deceased—a gap in time and space.

As a shamanic rite, jagar is a way to invoke an “awakened” state—a physical space wherein the living and departed can meet that’s neutral to mediate disputes and promote healing. It’s not unlike the salvatory effect which the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad promises by bringing our conscious awareness in constant contact with the fourth. “When the jīva (soul) asleep under the beginningless māyā is awakened,” it’s said, “it then realizes birthless, sleepless and dreamless reality.” It’s only from this state of transcendental consciousness that anything can be perceived accurately. Only from a state of deep rest can anything heal. 

On the folk level, turīya, isn’t a spiritual state of mind, but something to be possessed materially—a space to inhabit. This is why the lead shaman—the dagariya—is the “one who shows the way.” It’s a space that’s invoked and possessed whole-bodily, just as each of the syllables of the mantra Oṁ resonate within distinct regions of the subtle body: “A” within the navel, “U” within the heart and “Ṁ” with the third-eye and beyond the top of the head. In jagar, an assembly of three ritual performers gather around a burning sacred fire (dhuni) to become possessed of the awakened “fourth” state through song and dance—and open a portal of shared communal space that’s always been there and always will be.  

As we approached Panditji’s ancestral home, I could already hear the beating of drums and begin to make out faces of those who surrounded yet another blazing fire as his relatives. In the center the dagariya stood poised to begin his invocation, dressed in white ceremonial attire—a long shirt and matching floor-length skirt. Around his ankles were tied thick bands of tiny bells that resounded together in a tinkling chorus as he started to beat his feet in rhythm with the drums. 

A polyrhythmic clash of drums, cymbals and bells soon filled the air with a decided and continuous beat that was mesmerizing. Next came the jagariya, “the one who awakens with song,” who recited the heroic exploits of ancestors long since passed with the punctuation of poetic meter. 

Seduced by the mesmerizing lyrics, the dagariya started to get into it. His dance steps increased as the third member of the band stepped up the rhythm on the various percussion instruments he’d assembled—while adding a chorus to the poetic verses that began to achieve hypnotic speed. As the drumbeats increased, the dagariya’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and his movements became frenetic. This went on for what seemed like hours into the night. Everyone started to feel afraid. My fever reached a high pitch as the veil was lifted between the worlds. 

As Venus—the morning star—appeared in the dark sky they invoked the chief amongst all the local deities—Guru Gorakhnath—for his protection. Things could have spiraled out of control otherwise. Deep into the night, the dagariya started spewing out complaints. She entered his body—the disgruntled ancestor— and wanted some way to even out her karma so she could stop feeling tortured in the other world. She took credit for the cows and the other problems. She made her demands and assured her protection upon the successful transfer of the remedial offerings. Everyone recognized her as a great-great-great aunt by a secret she shared through the dagariya that only she would know.

Then at daylight it ended as the embers from the fire slowly cooled. The drum beats slowed and the dagariya released the spirit of the ancestor coming back to himself. We’d been awake all night. It wasn’t just the dagariya who’d entered the fourth state. All who were present entered the other world—the space in-between, the “gap” state of consciousness. We could communicate in that state across boundaries of the seen and unseen, bringing about a healing holism wherein all worlds connect as your own indwelling, awake Self—ever watchful, observant and wise. 

Then miraculously—or perhaps coincidentally—my fever broke and I finally got the right medication that cured my ailment. Panditji’s cow delivered a beautiful new baby calf. The rains began and everywhere the destructive fires were extinguished. The “fourth” delivered its promise.