COLOMBO: In Sri Lanka, sorcery is used as a substitute for premeditated murder and physical violence, says Princeton University’s Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Gananath Obeyesekere.
In his paper: “ Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and Canalization of Aggression” revised in 2014, Obeyesekere says that sorcery helps canalize a person’s murderous intention or wish to physically harm someone into a non-violent form of aggression which is thought to be as effective as the actual infliction of death or physical injury while being less risky and less messy.
This explains the widespread use of sorcery by members of all communities in Sri Lanka – Sinhalese Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim – though users are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist.
The use of sorcery is probably more now than before, because in modern Sri Lanka, sorcery is no longer a crime equivalent to homicide. In the times of the Sinhalese Kings, sorcerers were put to death as murderers.
The most renowned places for sorcery in the island are Seenigama Devale on the Western coast, south of Colombo, which is a Buddhist shrine; the Kali kovil in Munneswaram in Chilaw, north of Colombo, which is a Hindu shrine; and the Kahatapitiya shrine in Gampola, in Central Sri Lanka, which is Muslim shrine housing the grave of a saint. Neither the people nor the shrines discriminate on the basis of religion, with the result, Muslims also consult sorcerers in Munneswaram’s Kali Kovil or at Seenigama.
Obeyesekere posits that if one were to go by the number of people resorting to sorcery, the number wanting to murder or cause bodily harm in a premeditated way should be larger than the figure mentioned in official crime statistics.
In official statistics, incidents of spontaneous murder or violence vastly outnumber premeditated homicides or violence. But this could be misleading from the point of view of intention.
“The present data on crime statistics with their high ratio of spontaneous crimes to premeditated ones are highly biased and might be corrected by taking into account the factor of sorcery,” Obeyesekere suggests.
To the anthropologist, the sorcerer is the equivalent of a “hired killer”. In fact, sorcerers who recite “poison verses ” are thought to be “deadlier than actual killers,” and are “popular among politicians as a technique for getting rid of their political enemies,” Obeyesekere says. Given the high demand, the sorcerers charge high fees.
On why sorcery is resorted to when there is no assurance that death or bodily harm will surely follow, Obeyesekere says that the sadistic and vindictive verses uttered by the sorcerer, which the client parrots, has a cathartic effect on the latter and satisfies his lust for vengeance.
Further, clients derive satisfaction by attributing to sorcery, any misfortune that might afflict the targeted person. The satisfaction derived from the exercise and its imagined efficacy result in clients repeatedly visiting sorcerers.
Obeyesekere’s study of Seenigama, Munneswaram and Kahatapitiya shrines found that most of the clients were from the urbanized classes, rather than from the rural classes. Disputes brought before the sorcerers were about property and sex rather than land. And the targets of sorcery were not kinsmen as in the case of landed people, but outsiders, indicating the concerns of the emerging petty bourgeoisie. Though an ancient practice, sorcery in Sri Lanka seems to have contemporary relevance.