Saturday, 25 October 2014

There were no words for

what most of us would consider to be basic concepts, no words for "knowledge", "experience" and "institution". There were other words too but I was not keeping a list.
The Senior Cat and I were watching a short documentary about "shamans" in Sikkim - that tiny kingdom in the clouds of the Himalaya which was taken over by India for strategic reasons. I can remember reading about Sikkim as a child - in a book belonging to my paternal grandfather. It sounded strange and romantic but rather uncomfortable to me even then. Last night it still sounded that way.
The shamans of Sikkim are not charlatans. They are men of great medical knowledge. They use the herbs and other plants found in the surrounding rain forest to treat their patients and that treatment is often efficacious. Many people find that remarkable but we really should not. They have been gathering knowledge for thousands of years.  
Sikkim is a largely closed country. The last king of Sikkim ensured that. Tourists are almost unknown and it is almost impossible for an outsider to settle there. The documentary followed a young man who works for a government organisation. It is his job to try and learn as much as he can about the work of the shamans and record what he can - before it is lost. 
To say he has a difficult job would be an understatement. What makes shamanistic medicine work is perhaps a combination of sound medical practice and the belief that it is going to work.  It's complex. The shaman seem to have good reason for what they do mixed in with a belief system that Westerners would often find strange. If I were in Sikkim and not within reach of Western medicine I think I would feel quite safe allowing a respected shaman to treat me. "First do no harm" would seem to be their over-riding principle as well.
But what really fascinated me was listening to this young man. He was being interviewed in his own language but he is well educated in the Western sense as well. He knows English. His speech was scattered with English words. He was not showing off. I am sure he could have been interviewed in English. The reason for using English words however seemed to be quite different. The concepts do not exist in the language he was speaking - or at least they do not exist in the sense that we would understand them.
If I think about it that way it is an extraordinary reflection of their belief in where knowledge and experience come from. Yes, one shaman talked about watching his father, also a shaman but they seem to believe that their capacity to use herbs and to heal comes from the gods. That is an entirely different understanding of knowledge and experience. The belief in those things appears to be an important part of their ability to heal.
The linguistic psychology fascinates me. I would love to know more.

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