Spirit or demonic possession, āvisati or gahita in Pāli, is a situation where one or more malevolent supernatural beings are believed to forcibly inhabit and control a person. Possession and exorcism, the countering of such supernatural forces, is reported from most religions and not just primitive ones either. Exorcism was a major part of Jesus’ mission and according to the Bible he exorcised nearly 30 people and gave his disciples the permission and the power to do the same. Being able to ‘cast out demons’ was asserted to be proof of the Gospel by the early Christians and even by some Christian sects today.
The reality of possession was taken for granted during the Buddha’s time and the non-human being (āmanussa) that did it were regarded as ‘fierce, terrible and horrifying’ (D.III,203). Someone possessed would cry out in alarm: ‘This spirit has seized me, possessed me, harmed and hurt me, and will not let me go!’ (D.III,204). One of the very few examples in the Tipiṭaka of someone being possessed concerns a man named Sānu (S.I,208 ff). And I can find no example of the Buddha or any of his monks preforming an exorcism. However, the Tipiṭaka does include quite a few incidents where Māra or various yakkhas (see picture above) tried to terrify, tempt, threaten or harm the Buddha or some of his disciples (e.g. S.I,207). In all such cases the attempts failed as soon as the intended victim recognized who or what was behind the attack. When the Buddha was attacked as soon as he recognized who was responsible for it, Māra would ‘disappear then and there, sad and disappointed’ (e.g. S.I,104). Perhaps this could be interpreted to mean that as soon as the real cause of a supposed possession is recognized (i.e. hysteria, psychosis, schizophrenia or sometimes even epilepsy) it can be cured, or at least there is a possibility of a cure.