Distressed citizens turn to exorcism for relief

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Years ago, a man died in Pelanwatta after a bizarre and botched ritual to drive out what he thought were evil spirits from a house.

The man sacrificed a cat and was then buried in a shallow grave after instructing onlookers to dig him out once he gave a signal of pushing a sword he was carrying through the ground, Police said.

There was no sign of the sword coming up from the grave even after three hours. That is when the onlookers decided to pull him out anyway, but he was unconscious, a person at the scene told the Police.

The man had been requested to drive out demons feared residing in the home of a schoolteacher in Pelanwatta.

This is not the first situation, where people died after performing exorcism on them by ‘kattadiyas’ in the country.

Last year, a 9-year-old girl child was caned to death by an exorcist. The child was repeatedly beaten during a ritual they believed would drive an evil spirit away.

The mother believed her daughter had been possessed by a demon and took her to the home of the exorcist so a ritual could be performed to drive the spirit away. The exorcist first put oil on the girl and then began to hit her repeatedly with a cane.

When the child lost consciousness, she was taken to a hospital, where she died.

Even with all these tragedies, Sri Lankans still believe in pseudoscience, thinking that they would not be victims of these rituals. It is easy to put these tragedies into the account of Karma and move on rather than thinking rationally about the truth.

Now that the country is crippled with an economic crisis, the people, even those who are categorised as ‘educated,’ have started to believe in pseudoscience more than ever.

Traditional rituals

“There is a strong belief among ritual dance performers that there is a massive transformation in them both mentally and physically, a kind of a trance when they wear a ritual mask and dance to the sound of drums. Both the patient afflicted by the evil spirits and the Kattadiya are also in a trance in the height of the ritual performances. The blasting sounds of drums, the burning of incense, and recitation of numerous verses create a bizarre atmosphere suitable for the ritual. It is a common experience of those who have watched the Gam Madu ritual performed annually in many parts in Sri Lanka that even onlookers could be seen in ecstasies.”

This is an extract from the conference paper ‘Myths & Belief in Sri Lankan Society and their effects on women’ presented by Nadeeja Abeysekera and Chanaka de Silva.

Even today, Sri Lankans accept both the native system of treatment and healing rituals as effective ways of curing ailments. Mostly in the rural sector, Thovil, the healing rituals are practiced. It is evident that mask carving and mask dancing coexisted with exorcism and Ayurveda since ancient times.

Many in Sri Lanka, despite a majority of them being Buddhists, have faith in black magic, sorcery, and exorcism, and place great importance on astrology. Important State functions are held according to the auspicious times chosen by astrologers.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, people started to believe in pseudoscience to cure the illness, thinking the spirits could heal them rather than scientific medical treatment. During the pandemic, the people faced many mental struggles, as their lives changed dramatically with the travel restrictions and other measures implemented to control the spread of the virus.

They did not have enough time to get over, as Sri Lanka is crippled with the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.

Need of coping mechanism amidst economic crisis

As Sri Lanka is going through a massive economic crisis, mental well-being of the people has been affected as well. Many psychosocial issues can be seen in parallel to the economic crisis. The lives of people have been turned upside down. There are no pleasure activities to release the major stress the people are undergoing at the moment, Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe pointed out.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Dr. Ranasinghe said it is important for the people to release the stress. They need to express the stress they are going through.

For that, there are formal coping mechanisms such as counselling. But people have been failed by the traditional system including the religious institutions. As a result, people tend to follow pseudoscience more and more, he said.

“There are traditional and cultural rituals that helped the people to deal with stress and frustration such as Pirith Chanting ceremonies. But these days, organising such a ceremony would cost a fortune. That is an additional stress for the people. Owing to the social stigma, the people hesitate to seek medical help as well. As a result, they start to go for rituals performed by so called ‘kattadiyas,’ and ‘meniyos.’ These so-called rituals too would cost money. But we see that they charge money from time to time per ritual they perform,” he said.

Moreover, as the service-oriented Sri Lankan economy shrinks, thousands of people will lose their jobs. Small and medium enterprises will collapse. During a situation like this, people do not have a clear idea as to what they should do to overcome their misery. They have become helpless and no one knows if they will ever be able to return to their normal lives. This stress and frustration would lead people into mental disorders like depression. Some will believe these mental conditions are caused by demons and evil spirits.

“In the past, people worked hard to earn money and have a quality life. They had many ways to earn money. But now, it is not that easy. To address this helplessness, they visit the Devala to do rituals, believing that they will be able to overcome the misery. This has become a cash cow for Devalas and kattadiyas. We can see they are openly promoting their businesses on both mainstream and social media. People easily fall for these traps. This is a grave psychosocial issue in Sri Lanka,” Dr. Ranasinghe said.

Speaking further, Dr. Ranasinghe stressed that the mainstream media play a huge role in this scenario.

“Instead of providing scientific facts to the people, the media also endorse pseudoscience. There are so many such programmes to promote healing rituals, exorcism, and other practices such as hypnotherapy. So, the people think there is truth behind these, as such practices are endorsed by the media,” he added.

By Methmalie Dissanayake