2006: Workshops with traditional healers about their role in mental health

29th May, 31st May 2006
Ahmednagar and Kolhapur

As a part of its research study on the relevance of indigenous healing for mental health, Bapu Trust held two workshops with traditional healers in Ahmednagar and Kolhapur in May 2006. All the traditional healers belonged to ritual healing centers that Bapu trust had studied as a part of this study in Western Maharashtra. Many traditional healers belonged to various ritual care institutions across the districts of western Maharashtra, Nasik, Buldhana and Mumbai, while some were individual healers.

Objective of the workshops

The relevance of these workshops lay in the fact that this was the first time that the community of indigenous healers came onto a common forum to discuss issues regarding their practice and the state interventions on the same. In case of interventions by the State in this sector, for example, the anti-superstition bill, or the supreme court intervention, the community of indigenous healers has not been given an opportunity to contribute to the discussion and represent their views or concerns at all. The workshops attempted to provide a platform for the healers to articulate their opinions and experiences in this regard. The workshops also provided policy related data for our study.

The main objectives of these workshops were to understand the healers’ perceptions of mental health and illness and their role in mental health care. Since this study focused on the relevance of indigenous healing for mental health, it was imperative to know whether the healers themselves identified their role as that of health care providers. Also it was very clear from our preliminary findings that communities do access traditional healing centers for a range of health and mental health problems. The workshops also tried to explore healers’ explanatory models regarding health and mental health, causality of mental illness and treatment for the same.

Another core objective of the workshops was to understand the reaction of this community to the directives given by the Supreme Court and the Anti-Superstition Bill pending against them in the state legislature. Both these moves have caught this sector in a double bind- on the one hand the Supreme Court directive considers traditional healing centers akin to modern mental institutions, which provide mental health care to the community. On the other hand, the Anti-Superstition Bill aims at outlawing these practices dubbing them to be exploitative and based on blind faith. The workshop helped the healers to articulate their response to these developments and think of effective strategies by which they can present their case to higher authorities.

The workshops consisted of two sessions each. The first session was aimed at exploring the perceptions that traditional healers held about mental health, mental illness, causal factors and treatment. The second session was designed to elicit their responses with special reference to the legal initiatives in the form of the Supreme Court directives and the tabling of the Anti-Superstition Bill.

Perception of healers vis-à-vis mental health and mental illness

The healers’ understanding of mental health and illness and their attitude towards those suffering mental problems was based primarily on a problem-solving approach. According to their understanding of mental health and illness, people may develop a mental health problem if they are victims of tension or stress. That doesn’t mean that they are mentally ill. Patients can be described as being mentally ill only if their behaviour reaches an extreme.

Each person coming to the healer or the healing center has some sort of problem or the other; only the degree differs. In their experience, most afflicted persons come to healing centers or healers as the last resort. They try out all sorts of medical treatment before hand when the problem occurs and when they reach their last strength and nothing else helps, they come to healers and healing centers. The healers claimed to treat problems not according to categories under which they bracket patients but by a problem-by-problem approach whereby they try to solve each individual problem of a sufferer.

It was evident from the discussion that healers do not categorize sufferers easily. According to them, they take time to observe the sufferers first, their behaviour, their speech and the progression of their illness before deciding that they have a mental problem. They do not label them as being mentally ill from the very beginning. Above all, healers claim that people come to them because they experience joy and happiness with them.

Healers feel that mental problems occur within the community because most people have a lot of expectations from their life in today’s world. When these expectations go unfulfilled, people start having mental problems. This is not to say that they are mentally ill but they have mental problems due to having faced deep disappointments.

According to healers, women are especially vulnerable to spirit-related afflictions and mental illness since they are ritually impure and wander around in unprotected areas in an impure state. They also thought that men were stronger and could endure more hardships, while women’s minds are more vulnerable and sensitive and more susceptible to mental problems. A few healers felt that women are biologically more vulnerable to mental illness.

Many healers felt that women experienced more mental problems because they are given a substandard treatment in society. They face a lot of hardships and harassment. Also the fact that women didn’t have any physical freedom and mobility and lacked a mode of expressing their internal distress in the outside world was highlighted.

According to the healers, people come to healing centers with all kinds of problems. Some report witchcraft or evil spirit possession while others come for some wish fulfillment or report mental/ physical problems. In the healers’ experience, if patients with mental problems come to the ritual care center at the initial stage of the problem itself, then they get better much faster.

Healers’ perception of their role in mental health

Healers wanted to see their social role not as health providers but as providers of happiness and joy. According to them, reducing them to the level of a health provider would make their role extremely narrow and limited. They wanted to be seen as providers of joy and peace. They felt they had a wider social role to play in making the community experience for each person, a positive experience. They believed that spiritualism provides a great support to the cause of bettering mental health within the community.

According to healers, their role was that of mediums through which spiritual powers become accessible within the community. They look upon themselves as spiritual guides. Some healers believe it to be their mission in life to spread the spiritual message. Many said that they experienced a divine command for carrying out this service within the community. Finally, they feel that adopting the spiritual path is a matter of spiritual choice for every individual and everyone within the community should have freedom to take recourse to whichever mode of mental health enhancement strategies that personally appeals to them. There should be no law or policy to govern this.

According to healers, faith plays a very important role in healing. People come to them or their healing centers from long distances. It is actually a person’s faith in a certain remedy that finally heals him/her. This faith provides them with strength and hope and it is a stronghold of all kinds of positive feelings, which should not be disturbed or broken. Also it is the power and the positive energies connect to the healing center that gives rise to faith. Even if the priest were to change or go on leave, the sufferer will continue to experience miracles at the healing center.

Healers’ opinions on the question of exploitation in traditional healing

The entire group did agree that there are some healers and healing centers, which harm people by exploiting them. The healers in the workshop condemned such healers and accused them of maligning those who do good work for the community. According to the healers, the spirit of faith and purity is lessened when a healer or healing center begins to take money or starts to exploit people financially.

At the same time another opinion was voiced by some healers. According to them, devotees give financial and other assistance to the healing centers out of their own faith. This should not be considered as extortion. Asking for money or charging for remedies is exploitation. Healers demanded that awareness regarding financial and sexual exploitation in corrupt healing centers should be spread, so that people will not patronize such places. This, according to the healers, will automatically lead to exploitative healers going out of business.

Healers denied advertising their centers. According to them the healing a patient experiences himself, is advertisement enough. He tells others about the relief he experiences and then others come to the center with their own problems. They begin to experience faith and the positive environment once they come to the center. They then stay and on and gradually get better. For people to experience faith, the purity of the healing center has to be maintained.

Healers felt that they were unfairly blamed for violating human rights. There have been instances of chaining mentally ill persons in place of ritual healing centers but this is only because they are in an extremely violent stage and try and harm others. This chaining is not always done by the healing center but is done by the carers of the patient. The healers agreed that this should be stopped.

At the same time, the healers had an objection about how the sporadic human rights violation happening at ritual healing centers is played up in contrast with state sponsored human rights violation. Healers pointed out that the state takes money to tie up mental patients in mental hospitals and force them into solitary confinement chambers. The state is also violating the human rights of the sufferers by giving them repeated shock treatments. The state is not taking into consideration the freedom a sufferer experiences when he comes to a traditional healing center.

In traditional healing centers most sufferers are left alone to perform rituals. They can go where they like, they can sit or sleep where they like. They have absolute freedom. An extremely small number of patients are restrained by their carers when they start attacking other sufferers or people. However, the healers felt that the state looks at ritual healing centers in a biased manner heaping all accusations of human rights violation onto them while paying mental hospitals to mete out such and more horrible kind of treatments to patients who go over there for cure.

Healers reported that whatever remedies they suggested people had a definite scientific basis to it. But these old traditions were not recognized by modern medicine. The community should not try and measure traditional remedies from a modernistic viewpoint. These rituals are definitely not harmful. The healers even wanted to invite government bodies to visit their centers in order to ensure that there was nothing exploitative or harmful happening over there.

Healers’ response to the move to outlaw these practices
(Anti-Superstition Bill)

The healers wanted government authorities to take cognizance of the fact that thousands of people get healed at traditional healing centers, before considering a ban on these centers. Moreover, these healing traditions are old and provide a community a sense of continuity with the past. These traditions provide a basis for persons to experience devotion and faith, which are all positive and healing experiences.

The healers pointed out that religious practices are every person’s fundamental right and the choice of which center to go to is also a part of this right. According to them, renowned temple trusts across the country get enormous amounts of money as donation; however, when their small durgahs or temples receive donations that is branded as exploitation. The healers felt that this was highly unfair. One needs to be mindful of the politics of religious funding, according to the group.

The healers demanded that before enforcing laws on superstitious or exploitative practices, the government should consider the definitions of faith and superstition. What can be interpreted as superstition for one can be considered to be deep faith for another. Similarly, it is important to understand what encompasses exploitation, its nature, its context, its perpetrators and its victims before condemning certain practices in a superficial manner.

Healers also expressed an ethical constraint about stopping people from coming for worship to the healing center. They said that it was their duty to welcome everyone who comes over there. They could not turn away worshippers just because they are mentally ill. There is no way in which one can implement a law, which will keep away mentally troubled people from publicly accessible places such as temples or durgahs.

According to healers, it is their duty to pray for every person who comes to them with a problem. They claim to be true followers of God and they feel very hurt when people attack them and accuse them of being cheats. People who have mental problems feel much better after speaking about their problems. It is not just the ritual but also the communication that helps them.

Perceived barriers for healing work

Healers had grave objections about the fact that their good work was not accepted by the Government and that they were not given any recognition despite the fact that the community benefited so much from them. The government instead views healers in a derogatory manner, maligning them by labeling them exploiters and superstitious. Healers do not have anything tangible to show that will vouch for their credibility like doctors who have their degrees. Healers felt that the least that the state could do for them was to take into cognizance their public service and pure motivations at heart, even if it did not formally recognize them.

They feel that the lack of proof to show that people experience healing here was a barrier and hence resolved in the workshop that henceforth they will take a written statement from people who feel cured at the ritual healing center and show it as proof to the government. The healers also made strategies of taking written consent from a patient and a patient’s relatives before allowing them to stay in ritual healing centers.

According to healers, they lighten the work of the government by doing so much community service. The government, for example, should compare the funds they spend on de-addiction programs with the de-addiction that is done by traditional healers. Healers said that celebration at every religious occasion in ritual healing centers generates a great deal of funds for the state transport but the government never recognizes this. The healers demanded that the state recognize them as social workers and make special concessions for them. They should give healing centers subsidy just like they do for hospitals. They should help healers out of financial predicaments and help them build facilities at every center such as toilets, water and electricity.

Healers’ response to legal interventions in traditional healing

In the specific context of the Supreme Court directive, healers opposed all proposals of coming under a license. According to them, they are registered religious trusts. All members of the community can access any religious site for whatever personal reasons of their own. Why should healing centers come under any sort of license? Moreover, healers are the trustees of the healing center and not owners so there is no question of a license. The healers reported that they followed all government rules; organized for yearly audits and paid all their taxes, so what were they being booked under? There is a reason for license only when there is a possibility of harm to a patient like in a clinic or in a hospital. Here they don’t even touch the patient and the patient feels benefited on his own so why should they come under any license?

In the context of the Supreme Court directive and the demand to include them under the Mental Health Act and the Anti-Superstition Bill, healers were of the opinion that the government was putting them in a catch 22 situation. On the one hand, they are putting rules on them that are actually irrelevant for them, hence bracketing them with a group of professionals such as doctors and hospital owners. On the other hand, they were labeling them as exploiters, fake and superstitious. The healers demanded that the Mental Health Act should not be enforced on them or healing centers and that the anti-superstition bill should be banned. There has to be a definite recognition of faith healing and a safe space within the community made for them.

According to them, there had been no objective research carried out on the efficacy of faith healing before making a bill such as the anti-superstition bill. The policy makers have not considered the good work done by healing centers nor have healers been consulted about their work before making the anti-superstition bill. It is correct that there are many healers who exploit others. However, applying this bill uniformly to all before doing any research on them will drag in all the good people along with the exploiters. The healers invited the government to carry out objective research in healing centers without using the tactics that other anti-superstition bodies utilize that involves pretending to be devotees afflicted by witchcraft or spirit possession and then testing the efficacy of treatment.

Possible strategies for protecting healers’ interests

All the healers were of the opinion that they should come together in order to challenge the Anti-Superstition Bill and the Supreme Court directions. The healers decided to form a forum and write letters of protest to the governor, other government bodies and the courts. They also developed various strategies of dealing with the accusations heaped upon them by the government and the anti-superstition bodies. Some of the strategies were as follows:

  • Mobilizing followers from the different villages and right from the grassroots level urging them to come together, just like the anti-superstition bodies have mobilized their grassroots workers.
  • Organizing a signature campaign among followers vouching for their good work.
  • Taking letters of consent from people who come to healing centers for therapy
  • Taking letters stating that cure has taken place from those who have been healed at ritual healing centers.

At the same time, the group also formulated certain demands that they wanted to put forth to the Government. They are as follows:

  • Healers said that they didn’t want policies that would attack the good parts of their cultural tradition. They wanted policies that would take their good work under consideration.
  • They felt that just as the law does not dictate to people which service provider to use, policy cannot determine for persons which healing center or healer to go to.
  • Healers felt that the government should monitor the therapeutic work carried out at healing centers and decide on what is good or bad and follow this up accordingly with providing protection for all those who do good work.
  • Healers wanted to be involved in the decisions of the government. They were against the government making decisions on behalf of them.

Feedback of healers about the workshop

We thought that it was important to take the feedback of the healers and their opinions about holding such workshop. The feedback was most heartening since most healers lauded the organization’s efforts of organizing such a workshop. Till present, there had been no common forum where the traditional healers could exchange views and dialogue about their interests and threats facing the sector.

This workshop, according to most of the healers, enabled them to be in touch with several other healers who were doing similar work. They were discussing relevant concerns about their sector in a systematic manner for the first time.

Bapu Trust also offered to help them by providing information about the Anti-Superstition Bill and resource people from the legal sector. The organization said that it would be able to help the group of healers finalize the draft of the letter that they would be sending to the Government.

List of Participants for the Healers’ Workshops

  1. Dr. Prakash Khandagle 
    At post: Raipur
    Taluka, District: Buldhana
  2. Tanaji Padale
    Suvarta Church
    At post: Nimbalak
    Taluka, District: Ahmednagar
  3. Santosh Shelke (Maharaj)
    De-addiction Center, Shirpur
    At post: Shirpur
    Taluka, District: Buldhana
  4. Dileep Nimbalkar
    Katwan Khandoba Devasthana
    Savedi, Ahmednagar


  1. Rajaram Magdum
    Manager, Balumama Trust
    At post: Admapur
    Taluka: Bhudargad
    District: Kolhapur
  2. Mr. B.B.Aidmale
    At post: Borgaonwadi
    Taluka: Chikodi
    District: Belgaum
  3. Sheikh Mehboob Babalal Mujawar
    At post: Nandre
    Taluka: Miraj
    District: Sangli
  4. Suryakant Kumbhar
    At post: Borgaon
    Taluka: Valva
    District: Sangli
  5. Maruti Kolekar
    At post: Borgaon
    Taluka: Valva
    District: Sangli
  6. Mahant Aasegaonkar Prakashmuni
    At post: Phaltan
    Taluka: Phaltan
    District: Satara

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