Friday, March 25, 2016

A shamanistic approach to treatment: is it a miracle or just acoincidence?

Shamanism is part of an old cultural practice of treating sick people which was influenced by Bonism, a religion that originated in Tibet and spread to Bhutan before the 8th century. During the olden days when there were no medical facilities, Shamans were the only source of hope for the sick people. Today, although we live in a scientifically sophisticated world with advanced medical facilities, Shamanism is still a common practice in many communities in Bhutan. People first consult the shamans and only if they don’t get better, they go to the hospital. Shamans basically perform rituals to invoke the local deities and appease them to help the sick get better. I don’t find the logic to believe in such practices but a few circumstances have made me wonder if they really have some supernatural powers to fend off evil spirits. Believe it or not, I must confess that both I and my eldest son were once saved by a shaman although it could have been a mere coincidence or a placebo effect.

Just a few months after I joined my new job in 2007, I suffered from a weird kind of sickness and despite repeated medical checkups, the doctors couldn’t make the diagnosis. A high fever at night, headache, vomiting and difficulty in swallowing food were some of the symptoms but whatever drugs I was prescribed did not seem to work. In fact, I began to get worse every day. One day I decided to consult the IMTRAT hospital thinking they might diagnose my sickness, but instead they gave me some tablets advising me to take one whenever I felt the pain. They didn’t even tell me what kind of tablets they were. I immediately took one and soon afterwards I drifted into sleep. When I woke up after a few hours, I was still feeling the pain. So I took another pill. This time I went dead. I don’t remember how I went to bed. When my brother-in-law woke me up sensing I was not breathing normally, I felt as if I had woken up in a trance. I was still not fully conscious and felt asleep wherever I laid my head on. I had even bitten my cheeks from inside when I had gone unconscious. My wife and brother-in-law forced me to remain awake by making me wash my face and drink fresh water. It took several hours for me to come out of that trance. I was overdosed. Only then I realized the pills prescribed by IMTRAT hospital were sleeping pills. Nevertheless, my sickness did not fade and the doctor at JDW National Referral Hospital started collecting my mucus samples for laboratory testing. I was advised to test my early-morning mucus from the throat once every day for five days and my wife took it every morning. Meanwhile, we remembered the shaman from Bumthang who had successfully treated our eldest son when he was 3 months old. He was living in Langjo Phakha at the time and we invited him to perform the ritual. After three hours of ritual performance, he said that I would get alright in three days. He told me that I was attacked by a lady ghost and that he had driven her away. He had advised me not to get out of the house for three days. I am still not sure whether it was a coincidence or a miracle, but I began to feel the difference right from the next day. I realized I was able to swallow my food much easily than before. Soon I began to get better as my fever and headache began to fade away. Meanwhile, I had given my mucus sample for all five days and the reports were ready in the hospital. I took the reports and went to see the doctor but I was told that there was nothing unusual indicated in any of the reports. The doctor asked me how I was feeling and when I told her that I was feeling better after some rites, she just advised me to take good food and take good rest. I fully recovered without any medical treatment after all.

The same thing had happened with my eldest son earlier when he was three months old. I think the symptoms were similar because his body would become very hot at night and vomit regularly. The injection and oral-administered drugs given by the doctor made the situation even worse. One noticeable physical symptom was that his head would never bend forward although my mother-in-law used to tell us that at that age, the baby’s head usually bends forward. Since he was our first child, I and my wife thought it was a normal thing and did not pay much attention to it. He could bend backward easily but his head would not go forward as though he had something to support it from underneath the chin. After the medical treatment did not show any improvement even after several weeks of medical consultations, we finally decided to consult a shaman. We went to Langjo Phakha to look for the shaman who was our neighbor before and luckily we found him in his house. When we told him why we were there, he took out a plate of raw rice and touched it repeatedly with his hands. Then lighting an incense stick, he read out all the symptoms of the child just from the plate of rice. We had not even told him the visible symptoms of our son but he knew how he was suffering from high fever, headache and body ache. He immediately urged us to arrange for a ritual and we did it that night only. We invited him to our house and he performed the ritual for three hours. It was during this ritual that he declared how the ghost was carrying our son on her shoulder with his face turned upward and because of this, he was not able to bend his head forward. Although I couldn’t believe that story, I was surprised how he could find out that our son’s head wouldn’t bend forward because we hadn’t even told him that symptom thinking it was a normal thing. At the end of the ritual, he promised us that our son would get better within a few days. As promised, he soon began to show some signs of improvement and soon he got better. I am still grateful to that shaman for saving me and my son. What I have learned from these two experiences is that it would be always good to consult both religious and medical experts whenever we are sick. I know there are research studies that support the effectiveness of this combined approach to treatment. The spiritual faith provides psychological strength which directly corresponds to the effectiveness of medical drugs on physical health. Because of this reason, I believe in the miracles of both science and religion.

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