Malaysian Tiger Photo by Tu7uh
As I immersed myself in writing Pursuit of the Golden Lily, the practice of shamanism wove its way into my storyline. Awareness of indigenous healers, or medicine men and women, was not new to me; I had read some books, attended a few workshops and firmly believe in alternate realities. However, what I learned about the shamanic traditions of the Orang Asli aboriginal groups of Peninsular Malaysia, was extraordinary. My newfound knowledge arrived courtesy of Diana Riboli, President of ISARS (International Society for Academic Research on Shamanism), and Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at Panteio University's Department of Social Anthropology in Athens.
Diana is one of the few 'outsiders' to witness the inner workings of tribal medicine practiced by the Jahai, a semi nomadic indigenous tribe who are members of the Orang Asli. The Jahai have roamed the mountainous borderlands between Thailand and Malaysia for centuries. Diana spent several spells of time with the tribe, studying the remarkable traditions and customs of these gentle people. Unfortunately their invaluable knowledge (passed down through generations), of rainforest plants and animals, not to mention spiritual practices, risks being lost forever as the tribes are increasingly 'encouraged' to assimilate into Malaysian society.
Temuan People (Orang Asli)
One shamanistic ritual I found particularly riveting is the ability of the jampi (shaman in Jahai), to take on the shadow soul of any animal or plant. This practice enables them to travel anywhere, inhabit anything, all the while retaining the 'essence' of their hosts's physical nature. When a rogue tiger threatens a tribal village, a jampi will embody the shadow soul of a tiger to ward off the live predator.
While the shadow soul is at large, the body of its host remains in physical homeostasis, as if asleep. However, the fate of the shadow soul is intricately bound to that of its host. It experiences the same physical and emotional sensations – whatever befalls the shadow soul befalls the host body. If the shadow soul is killed, the physical entity dies too.
Extraordinary does not even begin to describe what these medicine men and women are capable of. Indigenous people worldwide have suffered, and continue to suffer, in the name of progress and religion. Instead of reaching out respectfully to learn from aboriginal elders willing to share their traditional ways, much of humanity has dismissed this precious knowledge as witchcraft or paganism.
Like indigenous people everywhere, the Jahai understand that all of life is connected. That, as Albert Einstein so eloquently said:
"A human being is part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness... Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Einstein was a theoretical physicist, revered for his brilliance. The Jahai are a nomadic tribe living in the jungles of Peninsular Malaysia. Their conclusions about life, in all its forms and manifestations are not so different from those of Einstein. As we prepare to face the formidable challenges brought about by our rapidly changing climate, it might behoove us to listen closely to these wisdom voices calling to us across millennia, and learn from them as quickly as we can.