The influence of khanong (i.e., the local healers, visioners) can be constructive, but it can also be misleading and fatal to our society, especially in times of crisis. Considering this reality (and the urgency during the Covid situation), we need to review the legitimacy of community decision making as influenced by khanong or spiritual influencers.
Before the arrival of the colonials, khanong had a distinctive role and responsibility within indigenous communities of Northeast India. Their service to the society was understood by common people as indispensable. Traditionally, it is believed that khanong (both men and women) were accompanied by a deity (or some sort of a spirit) who gave them unique abilities and insights. It is said that some of them had the ability to heal sickness or injuries; some had the power to drive out bad spirits or demons; some could travel to kazeiram (i.e., the land of the dead) and communicate with the departed souls; and some could see the future and give timely prophecies to the community or individuals. All things considered, they were seen as someone who is well versed in the customary laws, religious practices, and medicinal knowledge. Their knowledge and skills put them at the higher standing in our society.
After the colonials arrived, their defined place in our society was (allegedly) changed. Such change was not immediately apparent as they implicitly appropriated themselves in the newfound faith. Even after years of colonial presence, their role was prominent in our society. In the Census of India 1911, William Pettigrew gives a vivid report of their role in determining the sex of the child and name-giving to the child. However, at about the same time, we see him being critical (and even dismissive) of events that involve khanong–sharva or a diviner of hidden things (Pettigrew, “Kathi Kashām”). Their practice was seen as worshiping the evil spirit. This is another way of saying that the colonials brought their own distinctive Christian beliefs that endorses the practice of modern medicine. It is also to suggest that they begin to embrace the practices of modern medical doctors while socio-religious practices that were associated with evil spirits were dismissed.
After the colonials left, the practices of khanong resurfaced wearing Christian values – popularly known today as visioners (or healers). What seemed to have taken backstage at the time of the colonials, began to resurface in the present society. Like we uncritically embraced many colonial values in our day-to-day affairs, we also uncritically embraced back the sayings and doings of visioners. What was then dismissed as associated with the evil spirit is now claimed to be accompanied by the Holy Spirit.
Now, there are unchecked practices of khanong, such as unfounded prophecies, claims of healing, etc. by self-ascribed visioners or spiritual influencers. There are also claims of healers or herbalists claiming to heal cancer and other such deadly diseases. Unfortunately, common people are buying these prophecies and prescriptions. A recent study suggests that about “Sixty to eighty percent” of the Tangkhul population depend on local medicine or herbs. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there have been cases where our visioners-healers were helpful. And I am sure there are genuine service providers. But what is disconcerting are the prophecies-prescriptions with bizarre instructions to ward off evil, diseases, viruses, etc., making absurd claims to cure cancer, or labelling-associating preventive measures of covid-19 with some bad theology. On more than one occasion, such spiritual advice (whether directly and indirectly) has hurt people and even cost the lives of people.
This reality is alarming! Misinformation is life threatening.
In a time like today, the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: When posed with questions of mortality, where do we turn…? Doctors or visioners-healers? My first response to these questions is a common-sense response. In an unprecedented time, such as ours, community decisions that come with the influence of spiritual influencers need greater scrutiny. Decisions about life and death should not be dictated by the whims and predictions of some spiritual influencers. This is to hold that we all have the intellectual capacity to think and make decisions. The other response is a theological one. All believers have access to truth through Christ, and hence, we do not need another diviner with claims of heavenly prophecies. Each of us has access to God. We actually don’t need spiritual influencers telling us what ought to be done or not done. What the Divine wants to reveal is already a common knowledge to everyone.
Dr Taimaya Ragui is currently an academic research coordinator of The Shepherd’s Academyof Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His specialization is in the area of interfacing theological interpretation of Scripture and contextual theology. Views are personal.