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Magic: Magic in South Asia


Since the beginning of modern Indology in the writings of travelers, missionaries, and administrators, Hinduism has been described as a religion saturated with magic and superstition. The work of the missionary-traveler Abbé Jean-Antoine Dubois (17651848) set the tone for this type of discourse, but the British utilitarians who administered India were more influential in differentiating the magical from religious and scientific rationality. Major dimensions of Hinduism were reduced to the animistic practices and beliefs of peasants, a "lower" form of religion that was designated pejoratively as magical. Sir Monier Monier-Williams, for instance, identified village gods with tutelary powers that warded off demons and evil spirits pervading the countryside. Peasants worshiped fetishes, symbols endowed with intrinsic powers, and were far more interested in the avoidance of harm than in spiritual goals.

The distinction between "high" Brahmanic religion and the lower folk superstitions thus marked a boundary, on one side of which lay two types of rationalityreligious and scientificand on the other side of which lay what E. B. Tylor and James G. Frazer codified as homeopathic magic. Even the great German sociologist, Max Weber, who emphasized the ideological foundations of socioeconomic practices in India, succumbed to this distinction. Subsequent Western scholarship, including the specialized textual studies of magic by Willem Caland, Victor Henry, and Maurice Bloomfield, were thoroughly taken in by the distinction between religion and science on the one hand, and magic on the other. The mid-twentieth-century scholars who followed in their footsteps (for example, Jan Gonda and Louis Dumont) continued to regard Indian magic as a domain that, if not limited to folk religion, is certainly a type of attitude that displays belief in supernatural causality, the faith in a ritual's power over nature and gods, and the intrinsic value of the fetish object (Gonda, 1980, pp. 249250).

Recent developments in a number of disciplines bearing on South Asian cultures, among others, make the distinction between magic and religion hard to sustain, however. Medical anthropology and ethnomedicine (including ethnopsychiatry), performative and ritual theories based on the work of John Austin (and Stanley J. Tambiah), cognitive theories such as those of John Skorupski and Pascal Boyer, the use of postcolonial approaches, and the increasing focus on women's religious practices now allow researchers to understand so-called magic in a more inclusive manner. Numerous practices previously labeled magical can be seen as sharing a basic rationality with either religion or medicine, psychiatry, conflict resolution, or even technology. The rickshaw driver in Banaras who hangs a bottle of Ganges water in his vehicle could be symbolically articulating a wish for good fortune rather than trying to influence his fate. The pervasive practice of vrata, votive rituals in which practitioners, usually women, enact ritual performances in order to effect the well-being of others, cannot be seen either as exclusively magical or exclusively religious.

Still, the languages of South Asia contain dozens of terms that are either associated with magical practices, or in some way connote magic. This may be one of the main reasons that the conceptual distinction between magic and religion (or science) is still influential among many contemporary scholars.

Magical Terms and Practices

Due to the prevalence of magical practices throughout the subcontinent, from Nepal to Sri Lanka and from the tribal communities such as the Bhils, Warlis, or Gonds to the upper classes of Mumbai, the variety of terms is impressive. A very brief sample of various terms in Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, Newari, Sinhala, and other languages includes yātū or jādū, māyā, karman, ktyā, śāti, abhicāra, tonā, oakā, tantra-mantra, bhūt, mantravaadi, peey, peey-pisasu, tuna, mikhā, syãkā, kaipha, najar, abhicārin, ojhā, sokhā, gunia, baiga, bhagat, yakku, koivina, mantrayas, diiya, and yaka.

These refer to a number of concepts, practices, and types of specialist, both in ancient times and today. The most common area of magical concern is the healing of humans (adults and children), animals, and even machinery such as vehicles. Since the time of the Atharvaveda, the dominant folk etiology has ascribed numerous health problemswhen witchcraft or sorcery was not suspectedto the invasion of the person by ghosts or spirits (bhūt-pret, piśāc, jinn in Hindi/Urdu). Healing has often taken the form of exorcism, either at home or at specialized locations such as Bharatpur, or Baba Bahadur Sayyid in Banaras. These rituals are usually performed by specialists such as ojhās or sokhās or gunia in Nepal. The rites take the form of an expulsion, driving the invading agent out by mimicry and with the use of mantras and the help of the goddess, and imprisoning it in the body of an animal such as a fish or bird, which is then released into the wild. Patients are often given protective amulets (kavac ) to prevent future problems.

The single most pervasive concern may be failure to conceive or safely deliver a child. Magical treatments range from exorcism to bathing in certain well-known pools, such as the Lorlark Kund in Banaras, the ritual offering of specially manipulated (and pricked) fruit such as coconuts, straddling Śiva-ligams, and chanting mantras. The specific problem and its remedy may be identified througha variety of divinatory rituals that includes the spinning of sticks, the throwing of dice, or the painting of fingernails with lampblack or collyrium (kājjal). Some diviners specialize in locating lost relatives and may work with the aid of reluctant spirits who whisper into their left ear, having been brought under control through so-called tantric rituals (Svoboda, 1986).

Despite the enormous technological and educational changes taking place throughout South Asia, few areas of human concern are untouched by magical technique. Even many of the trucks that speed along on highways display signs that threaten: "he who casts the evil eye (najar ) will get a black face." The concept of evil eyethe damage done by an unfavorable glanceis extremely pervasive, and children are often armed (with facial paint) against it. Astrologers still do a booming business, from coordinating marriage matches to establishing auspicious travel dates. Art in villages, especially wall art, along with the ritual application of abstract diagrams (kōam in Tamil, rangoli in Maharashtra, etc.) on thresholds throughout the subcontinent, is associated with protection and auspiciousness. House construction, boat-building, and rickshaw and car purchase may be accompanied by special pūjā rituals for the pacification of evil influences and the peaceful enjoyment of ownership. Life-cycle ritualsespecially those connected with young children (first solid feeding, cutting of hair, naming) and weddingsas well as the vrata rituals that religious practitioners (usually women) undertake are all associated with symbolic performances, mantras, and beliefs that may be interpreted as magical. The same even applies to yoga techniquePatañjali's Yoga Sūtra promises extraordinary powers to advanced practitionersand tantric sādhana, and even the common pūjā that most Hindus perform frequently utilizes techniques and tools of magic.

Magical Tools and Technique

Magic in South Asia is not a failure of scientific rationality or transcendental metaphysics. It is the daily application of a subtle ideology that enchants the world of the senses by means of divine power. The tools and techniques vary from one region to the next, but a number of basic features prevail universally. The first and foremost is the mantra, which is used as a verbal formula for blessing, cursing, mind-altering, spells, and so forth. The mantras vary from Vedic and Atharvavedic versions (Viea hanmi te viam, "with poison I kill your poison") to tantric ones: "hrī, śrī, krī, pa-ra-me-śva-ri, svā-hā " and even ad-hoc formulas such as "Śānte śān, glory of Ali, hit my enemy with a thousand arrows." Mantras may be sung, chanted, whispered, and even blown into a bottle or onto the head of patients. Scholars have debated the meaning and function of mantras, but in magical practice they are regarded as the single most powerful tool in the magician's bag.

Mantras are often associated with or replaced by geometric designsyantras and maalas that depict in spatial terms the meaning of the mantra, or embody the power and attributes of a god or goddess. The diagrams utilize precise geometric symbols, but also rely on an elaborate color symbolism (for instance, white, red, black, and yellow all have symbolic meaning) or on numbers. These symbolic systems owe their significance to tantric alchemical ideas, Atharvaveda authority, Āyurveda medical cosmology, or local traditions (Goudriaan, 1978, pp. 175190).

Regional variations also determine the types of herbs, plants, oils, and other remedies used, the kinds of animals regarded as beneficial or harmful, and the tombs, shrines, trees, ponds, or hills which constitute centers of healing, fertility, or exorcism. For example, in Banaras, muscle or joint pain might require the rubbing of fish oil, while in Rajasthan, lizard oil serves as the remedy. Pastoral tribes may favor the goat for curing asthma while settled villagers may rely on buffalo or perhaps the leaves of the nim tree. In every case the performance of magical rituals reveals a close familiarity with the natural environment, an acuity of sensory perception, and a sophisticated attention to the social and psychological needs of patients.

Intellectual Foundations of Indian Magic

One of the basic and most frequently discussed aspects of Hindu thought is the Vedic cosmological continuity between the transcendent and mundane realms, or between the sphere of gods (adhidevata ) and the sphere of humans (adhyātman ). The two realms resemble or correspond to each other through an infinitely rich system of homologies (nidāna ). These correspondences are instantiatedwith a one-to-one precisionwithin the Vedic sacrifice (yajña ), which is the ritual that mediates between the two realms while forming yet a third. This foundational conception has been very fecund in sprouting several distinct traditions, which have included the ritualistic sciences of the brāhmaa texts, the mystical speculations of the Upaniads, the medical systems of Āyurveda, the physio-psychology of yoga, and the alchemy of Tantra to name but a few. At the most basic level, these traditions shared the insight that a connection between the human/individual realm and the divine/transcendent is possible, as long as it was produced through a specialized technique, knowledge, or healing substance. An early and vivid example of this connection can be seen in the Bhadārayaka Upaniad's opening line: "The head of the sacrificial horse, clearly, is the dawnits sight is the sun." Cosmology and ritual (sacrifice) mirror each other and form a seamless continuity, which the ritual specialist can exploit.

Throughout Indian history the sacrificial ritual has played a role not only in cosmology, but also in other contexts as well. Tantric traditions, as David Gordon White shows, are systems of (alchemical) mediations based on the science of the sacrifice. Fluids, semen, moon, and mercury on the one hand, and fire, blood, sun, and sulfur on the other are mediated by air, wind, and breath to unify the macrocosm with the microcosm. Similarly, as the oldest medical knowledge (Āyurveda) was becoming systematized and situated within the normative traditions of dharma, it was the sacrifice that provided the primary method of linking the work of the surgeon to religious cosmology: the Āyurvedic surgeon was merely replicating the work of the divine Aśvin twins who had learned from Prajāpati (and Brahmā) how to reattach the head of the sacrifice severed by Rudra (Suśruta Sahitā 1:1720).

Although the three broad traditions (Upaniads, Tantra, Āyurveda) are distinct in most ways of reckoning, all assume some continuity between the divine and mundane realms. In fact, most traditions inspired by the Vedic ethos refuse to differentiate categorically between speculative (or "scientific") and pragmatic concerns. The Vedic sacrifice itself is as much about prosperity and health as it is about obtaining heaven, immortality, or the selfless nurturing of the gods.

A ready example of this combined orientation is the literature on domestic rituals. Systematically expounded in the Ghyasūtras, domestic rituals ensure the correct maintenance of the household, but are equally attentive to the threefold knowledge (of gods, ātman the mystical selfand sacrifice) that defines the worthiest Brāhma. The same texts that describe how to part the hair of a pregnant woman with a porcupine quill in order to obtain a son, also explain what is superior knowledge and why it is so (Śākhāyana Ghyasūtra ). Another way of putting the matter is that the techniques most closely associated with mukti (liberation)namely concentration, austerities, self-control, recitationare also conducive to bhukti (enjoyment): long life, health, power, children, and wealth (Chāndogya Upaniad 5:19:2).

Within this worldview, no insurmountable boundary separates the "arts" of magic from mystical speculation. According to the gvidhāna (1:15:4), a mystical mantra, chanted in reverse, can be used to destroy one's foes: it has the power of brahman, which is the hidden potency of the Vedic ritual, and is the underlying principle of the brāhmaa texts and the Upaniads. Much of what is generally regarded as mystical (transcendent, speculative) is also magical (mundane, pragmatic) and vice versa.

Two intersecting and overlapping concepts that underscore this point are "Indra's net" (Indrajāla ) and māyā (illusion). In the gveda, Indra (or Maghavan) is a magician-god who can change forms at will, "changing shape by the use of magic" (3.53.8; 7.99.4). Indra uses his magic to bring rains, using the lightning as his magician's wand. His net is a powerful tool with a profound effect on human perception: "Indra's net is vast, as big as this world, and with Indra's netthis magicI enmesh, entrap, those people with darkness." Lee Siegel argues that these ideas indicate the intimate link between ancient Indian conceptions of magic and conjuring: both involve deception and illusion, resting as they do on the vulnerable nature of human perception.

As Jan Gonda has observed, "māyā is an incomprehensible wisdom and power enabling its possessor, or being able itself, to create, devise, contrive, effect, or do something." (Gonda, 1965, p. 216) The possessor may be divine or human, but in either case the power to create has a profound phenomenal upshot: it fashions a sense-based reality that is both wondrous and powerful in hiding what is ultimately real. It is the card up the magician's sleeve.

In short, Indra's net, the snare with which God rules over the sensory world and over humans, is his power, his māyā. This is how Śakara, the ninth-century philosopher, interprets the passage in the Bhagavadgītā in which Ka says to Arjuna: "My māyā is hard to overcome" (7:14). The net is a fitting image to describe the power of God because it is sensory perception that binds humans in this world. At the same time that it binds, however, sensory perception also provides a connection to God's creative energy (Goudriaan, 1978, p. 216). What is perceived by humans in this world corresponds to elements of the divine order, creating a bond, a correspondence that is sense-based and lies at the root of the homological rationality that one sees in much of India's traditional thinking: the elaborate system of resemblances and correspondences that misled James Frazer and Victorian scholars into perceiving what they encountered as homeopathic and superstitious. The principle underlying this way of sorting out the world is not an expression of "magical" thinking, but rather a privileging of sensory experience as the index of God's creative energy, and a recognition of its potential to further one's interests.

By recognizing the connection between divine power (māyā ) and sense perception, humans can transcend empirical reality (mukti ) and māyā, but they can also use this recognition to live a good life (bhukti ). This is possible only as long as the meshes of the phenomenal net, so to speak, are not broken. In fact, all practical magic commences with a problem, a tear in the net or web of perceived relations. The health problems of humans and animals, failure to conceive, or bad luck in businessall problems brought to the attention of the magicianmay be understood implicitly as the rip in Indra's net.

Literary Sources of Magic

Due to the difficulty of isolating a distinct magical domain within Indian culture and literature, it is hard to name uniquely magical texts. Only two texts within the ancient corpus can be regarded as almost completely magical works in the sense that they focus exclusively on rites and mantras conforming to the ideology outlined above. One of these is the Atharvaveda, the fourth and latest addition to the Vedic canon. It is primarily a collection of verbal formulas uttered by the atharva priest in a wide array of circumstances: The majority focus on health matters, but many deal with procreation, love, wealth, warfare, property disputes, travel, justice and, of course, the counteracting of sorcery.

The other primarily magical text is the Kauśika Sūtra (c. 700 bce), which either reflects an ancient ritual tradition that paralleled the atharvanic formulas, or was artificially composed to illustrate the ritual contexts in which the Atharvaveda was meant to be used. Hundreds of rituals, most of them nearly indecipherable without the much later commentaries of Darila and Keśava Kāśmīrin, cover matters of concern similar to those of the Atharvaveda.

But, more broadly, the gveda (and gvidhāna ) with its mantras and mythical allusions, and the Yajurveda and, later, the brāhmaas with their sacrificial rituals, are also rich sources of magical ideas and performances. In fact, Mīmāsā philosophy explains that what makes Vedic rituals powerful and efficacious is the adta type of action, the action that has no visible or empirical utility. For instance, the ritual's insistence on facing in a particular direction is more efficacious in producing results than cleansing the ritual utensils.

The Ghyasūtras prescribe the rituals and mantras that must be used in the household, governing the life stages (including pregnancy, birth, feeding, and naming) of twice-born members of society from the moment of conception until death. They describe in some detail, occasionally intersecting with the prescriptions of the Kauśika Sūtra, the verbal and ritual parameters that have to be observed in every stage of life. For instance, the gurū must initiate the student by sprinkling him with water three timesneither more nor lessas the student joins his hands in greeting (Śākhāyana Ghyasūtra 2.2.10). During the wedding ceremony the groom seizes the bride by the thumb if he desires boys, by the other fingers if he wishes to bear girls (Āśvalāyana Ghyasūtra 1.7.34).

What makes these rituals "magical" is not that they are regarded as yātū or abhicāra, or that they seem to manifest magical thinking of the type defined by Frazer or even current theorists. The operative criterion is a recognition, based on sensory perception and performed symbolically, that life is constituted by interrelated phenomena (the number three, water, fingers, and children) that are both meaningful and controllable when properly understood. Numerous additional examples can be found in the Suśruta Sahitā and the Caraka Sahitā, the two major texts of Āyurveda medicine. Both texts are encyclopedic in range, covering every known medical topic, from medical philosophy (and cosmology) to diets, prognostics, surgery, pharmacology, and others. Both are based on a sophisticated humoral theory and both contain hundreds of healing procedures.

The legal texts, for example Mānava Dharmaśāstra, also describe rituals that could be characterized as magical by these ideological standards. The courtroom is a sacrificial hall and the criminal, especially the one who willingly confesses and submits to punishment, is a sacrificial player (the victim) who benefits by the punishment. Similarly, the Kāmasūtra is renowned for its use of carefully prescribed procedures designed to help in seduction, perpetuate or enhance love, improve sex, enrich the diet, and restore health. Even the pragmatic Arthaśāstra of Kauilya describes the use of special procedures for complementing the normal devices of statecraftfor instance, using mantras and potions to confuse and subdue one's enemies.

The Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaa both feature episodes involving magicians, although few rituals are explicitly prescribed. In contrast, some Purāa texts dating to the first millennium of the common era, most notably the Agni Purāa, contain large collections of spells, procedures, and formulas (including diets and herbal concoctions) for a variety of purposes: healing, undermining enemies, victory in battle, health, longevity, interpretation of dreams, astrological success, and so on. Other Purāas are not as detailed, but the Devī Purāa provides lengthy verbal formulas with detailed descriptions of their use.

A vast repository of magical practices and verbal formulas can be found in the literature that is broadly termed Tantra. Such texts as Rasārava (tentheleventh centuries ce), or the Rasahdaya Tantra of Govinda (tentheleventh century ce), contain spells and chants (mantras ), geometric designs, alchemy, color symbolism, medical practices, and exorcism procedures. In popular street usage in India today, the word tantra has come to mean magic, due to the prestige of the tradition, along with its accessibility compared to the Vedic and Āyurvedic literature.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Indian Alchemy; Mantra; Māyā.


Bloomfield, Maurice. Hymns of the Atharvaveda. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 42. New York, 1969. Extensive translations of Kauśika Sūtra rituals alongside the Atharvaveda material, with useful commentaries.

Bloomfield, Maurice, ed. The Kauśika Sūtra of the Atharvaveda. Delhi, 1972. The full text, edited with the major commentaries, but not yet available in English.

Caland, Willem. Altindisches Zauberritual: Probe eines (Übersetzung der wichtigsten Theile des Kauśika Sūtra ). Amsterdam, 1900. The most extensive translation of the Kauśika Sūtra rituals, with dated analysis of magic.

Desjarlais, R. R. Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. Philadelphia, 1992.

Freed, Ruth S., and Stanley A. Freed. Ghosts: Life and Death in North India. New York, 1993. A comprehensive survey and analysis of practices related to the belief in ghost possession and exorcism.

Gangadharan, N., trans. The Agni Purāa, Parts III. Delhi, 1985.

Gellner, David N. The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. New Delhi, 2001. A sociological analysis of Newari practices and beliefs in Nepal, including extensive discussions of magic, especially possession and healing.

Glucklich, Ariel. The End of Magic. New York, 1997. A theoretical and descriptive interpretation of magic, including a new theory of magic, based on material from Banaras.

Gonda, Jan. Change and Continuity in Indian Religion. Leiden, 1965.

Gonda, Jan. Vedic Ritual: The Non-Solemn Rites. Leiden, 1980. Contains a brief but detailed discussion of ancient Indian magic, based on the rituals of the Vedas, Ghyasūtras, and Kauśika Sūtra.

Goudriaan, Teun. Māyā Divine and Human. Delhi, 1978. A detailed textual study of the ideological foundations in māyā and Indra's net of Indian magic.

Henry, Victor. La magie dans l'Inde antique. Paris, 1904. A mostly descriptive study of magic in ancient India based on the Atharvaveda and Kauśika Sūtra.

Jayakar, Pupul. The Earth Mother. New Delhi, 1990. Somewhat informal but useful look at the mutual influences between Vedic and tantric traditions and tribal/folk cultures, especially in the domain of art and magic.

Kapferer, Bruce. A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. 2d ed. Oxford, 1991.

Oldenberg, Hermann, trans. The Grihya Sutras, Parts III. Sacred Books of the East, vols. 2930. Delhi, 1989.

Scott, David. Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. Minneapolis, 1994. A historical ethnography of Sinhala ideological and ritual discourses on malevolent spirits.

Siegel, Lee. Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India. Chicago, 1991. Studies the link between the arts of conjuration and ancient Indian cosmology.

Stutley, Margaret. Ancient Indian Magic and Folklore: An Introduction. Boulder, Colo., 1980. A clear and accessible survey that relies primarily on the work of Bloomfield.

Svoboda, Robert E. Aghora: At the Left Hand of God. New Delhi, 1986. A biographical and vivid account of the work of a contemporary Aghori tantric sorcerer.

White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago, 1996. A close examination of the homological cosmology, based on fire and fluids, at the heart of alchemical magic within tantric literature.

Ariel Glucklich (2005)

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