Rituals : The power of pain

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Dimitris Xygalatas realised he was onto something big long before the New York Times (NYT) and Discovery Channel took an interest in his work. Still, nothing prepared him from the splash his research paper entitled, Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual would cause, namely in the form an article on the front page of the NYT the day after Osama bin Laden was killed.

“It wasn’t exactly a slow news day”, he quips. That the study generated such media interest is testament to the groundbreaking nature of his work on “collective effervescence”, a term coined by the late French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. After exploring fire-walking in Greece and Spain, Xygalatas has spent the past few months studying religious communities in Pointe-aux-Piments and Quatre-Bornes. And it’s safe to say that his new discoveries will garner just as much press coverage as his previous work.&nbsp

It’s a sunny Sunday morning at Le Brisant restaurant in Pointe-aux-Piments, but upgrading works at the Maha Kali Mata Mandir on the opposite side of the road are in full swing, as we’re constantly reminded by the insistent whine of a stone grinder. “It has to be ready for when fasting begins”, says Nayman, the temple’s secretary. Over a late breakfast, Dimitris Xygalatas explains what drew him here in the first place. “I considered studying high arousal rituals in Mauritius for my PhD. I wanted a place that’s small, relatively isolated and has a diverse society”, says the anthropologist from the Aarhus University in Denmark and director of the LEVYNA Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. Even though that plan didn’t quite pan out he never abandoned hope of exploring rituals in the Mauritian context, something he’s been doing on and off since 2009.

And his persistence paid off. “Mauritius is an ethnographic paradise”, he affirms, especially for his particular brand of experimental anthropology which seeks to blend hard science with traditional ethnographic fieldwork. “Typically the two don’t mix, but we thought it’d be interesting to take the lab and put it in the field.” In Effects of religious setting on cooperative behavior: a case study from Mauritius, a paper published last week in Religion, Brain and Behaviour, Xygalatas posits that religion “increases cooperation between people and makes them more pro-social”. Indeed, by using the mandir and restaurant as the scenes of economic games he was able to determine that “participants in the temple setting were more cooperative than those playing in the restaurant setting”, irrespective of “self-reported religiosity or ritual involvement”.

This discovery is rendered all the more relevant by the fact that “regardless of its idyllic portrayals, however, distrust and suspicion remain generally high in Mauritian society, not only between but also within groups”. Yet it’s another study conducted at the Kovil Montagne in Quatre-Bornes that he appears to be most excited about. Although it’s still under embargo, Xygalatas is prepared to reveal its methodology and certain findings. The experiment, which took place last spring during Cavadee celebrations and included the distribution of 70 heart monitors to fire-walkers, chanters and spectators, established a clear correlation between “experienced pain and pro-social behaviour”. In particular, the anthropologist says, “the more pain people went through the more they gave in anonymous donations to the temple”. Most surprisingly though, the more intense the ritual, the more participants went towards their superordinate identity. In other words, they were more inclined to see themselves as Mauritians than Hindus.&nbsp

He expects the study to have as much as an impact as the one that ended up on the front page of the NYT. The latter, which explored fire-walking rituals in Spain, showed that walkers and their friends and relatives in attendance, had similar heart rates, namely around 200 beats per minute. Hence the use of Durkheim’s poetic term “collective effervescence”. In addition, all the participants claimed that they were very calm during the fire walk despite their high pulse rates. “Basically, they blacked out”, remarks Xygalatas. But why such an interest in these high arousal experiences? “Rituals are a ubiquitous aspect of human behaviour but we take them for granted. From an evolutionary perspective they’re especially puzzling: how can things that appear to have no function have survived for so long? If rituals do indeed bring people together, this can have far-reaching implications”.

Of course, rituals aren’t the sole preserve of religion everyone from the military to corporations employ them to strengthen bonds between their members. Given their potential for encouraging “cooperation between people” can they be used to address some of the social problems facing the country? Xygalatas mulls over this for a moment he appears wary of his findings being misinterpreted or perhaps even used for political ends. He does however, believe that rituals have a social function. “We can learn something from them. Rituals are one of the mechanisms that help maintain social cohesion. They also fulfil an individual function by giving people a sense of identity,” he opines.

The anthropologist is currently in discussion with the ministry of tertiary education, the Mauritius Research Council and department of social studies and humanities of the University of Mauritius in view of formalizing “the exchange of knowledge and students”. The good news is that he has secured funding for the next five or six years from the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium. “It’s a long term-project. What we’re doing here is using Mauritius as a lab for studying social cohesion”, he concludes. For a country that’s gotten a lot of negative press these past few months, that’s doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.


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