Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions

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Gregory Shushan
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gregory Shushan has previously studied near-death experiences [NDE] in early Christianity, the Vedas, and as a methodological issue in the comparative study of religions. In this book, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, Shushan provides exhaustive research on textual accounts of Indigenous traditions in North America, Africa, and Oceania. Shushan characterizes Indigenous societies using terms of difference appropriate to the dynamism and variety of traditions covered by this global category–they did not produce written religious texts, they have diverse beliefs particular to their locations, with internal variations consistent with oral cultures and dynamic developments over time. Given that he is providing a compilation of written sources, Shushan acknowledges this as a study of crisis situations. These accounts are found in the records of missionaries and anthropologists from the 17th to the 20th century. “In general, the societies were first studied during periods of religious, cultural, social, and/or physical crises due to multipronged colonialist assaults on their land, resources, bodies and souls—which partly entailed the destruction or transformation of traditional beliefs and practices” (12). His methodological emphasis, therefore, is to provide accounts that are culturally contextualized to accurately represent the Indigenous hermeneutics of religious experience particular to the respective regions. Shushan identifies NDE as “exceptional experience” that he is not reductively explaining away in terms of cognitive science, for example, but rather through interdisciplinary research questions that build a more accurate description of the power of these experiences in the organization of communities, toward the fundamental question “what happens to us when we die?” 

The book proceeds with Shushan’s  methodological argument, followed by the source materials organized by societies within each of the three regions. He offers a synthesis that characterizes the region’s cultural response to NDE, within which the accounts rest with greater or lesser sympathy. This leads Shushan to note the distinct contrast in the ambivalence found in African cultural responses to NDE, compared to those in North America and Oceania. The contrast itself, however, also demonstrates the universal concern found in societies when faced with the exceptional experiences of their people. 

Shushan notes that NDE accounts provide some of the earliest forms of critique against Christian teachings. In a 1646 account, a converted Wyandot (Huron) woman rose from her burial in a Christian cemetery and recounted her experience in the fiery hell of the French Catholics, from which she was rescued by a compassionate soul and shown a valley for the Indigenous people not converted to Christianity that was delightful, and “without evil” (24). Rather than stay in the Indigenous realm, she felt she had to return to life and warn her people. This critique of the Christian afterlife survived as a powerful narrative of resistance—dissuading conversion in the region and recounted in text—serving as  a source of frustration to the French Catholic missionaries for decades. 

While reading this book, I considered the colonial conquest as an NDE, unrolling like a long emergency over centuries—Shushan did not. I had the haunting feeling that I was looking at the record of so many exceptional experiences that were pinned into place by their colonial authors, like a butterfly collection. There is a weighty poignancy to this collection, bearing witness to the value of studying historical records regarding the fundamental question “What happens to us when we die?”. For researchers and graduate students, Shushan does an admirable job explaining the challenges of comparing exceptional experience, and demonstrates subtlety and nuance as he compares and contrasts Indigenous NDE in North America, Africa, and Oceania. Readers will be challenged by the breadth of methodological concerns Shushan examines, and by his careful thesis regarding how  we can study the power of NDE within the organization of cultural knowledge surrounding the fundamental human concern with the significance of death.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary L. Keller is Associate Academic Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gregory Shushan is Honorary Research Fellow at the Religious Experience Research Centre, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. He is the author of Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations and has been Research Fellow at Oxford University's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and at the Centro Incontri Umani at Ascona, Switzerland.


Gregory Shushann

I would like to thank Prof. Keller for her thoughtful review of my recent book.  I have one correction, one clarification, and a couple of comments, if I may.

Correction: I have not written on near-death experiences (NDEs) in early Christianity. Perhaps Prof. Keller is thinking of Stephen E. Potthoff’s The Afterlife in Early Christian Carthage: Near-Death Experiences, Ancestor Cult, and the Archaeology of Paradise(Routledge 2016)?  My previous study in this area was Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience (Bloomsbury 2009).  In that book I examined afterlife beliefs in Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and Maya and Nahua pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, in relation to NDEs and other theories that might help account for cross-cultural similarities.

Clarification:  Keller writes how I “note the distinct contrast in the ambivalence found in African cultural responses to NDE, compared to those in North America and Oceania.”  More precisely, the African reception of NDEs has the closest parallels in Micronesia and Australia (greater ambivalence); while the Native American reception of NDEs bears more similarities to Polynesia and Melanesia (greater acceptance). Put another way, the geographic regions of Oceania had wider diversity and less of an overall general pattern that was evident in the other two areas.

Comments:  I was struck by Keller’s statement that she “considered the colonial conquest as an NDE, unrolling like a long emergency over centuries.”  This is an interesting view to take, particularly considering that one of the hallmarks of NDEs is post-experiential transformation and renewal.  On the individual level, NDErs often speak of increased spirituality and empathy, and decreased materialistic concerns.  In some cases, this corresponds to the cultural response – particularly where NDEs inspired religious revitalization movements which involved a renewal or “rebirth” of local traditions.  Whether or not this kind of post-NDE cultural renewal has occurred on a wider scale among indigenous populations in the (ostensibly) post-colonial era would be a matter for debate, though I would argue that sadly it has not given that so many indigenous peoples remain under various kinds of threat.    

I’d like to stress, however, that I do not believe that “the crisis of domination that underlies these records” necessarily always impacted the experiences themselves, or the phenomenological descriptions of them.  In other words, they are not onlycolonial crisis narratives.  To see them as such risks ignoring the individualdimension of the experiences and, I would argue, denying agency to those who had them and reacted to them.  The experiences and their interpretation were not simply responses to the colonial crisis situation, and indeed it is important to remember that these are also personalcrisis narratives: the individuals who had these experiences were by definition physically near death, or had even been clinically dead for a time.  Furthermore, many of the beliefs, practices, and experiences discussed in the book preexisted colonial domination, and while they were certainly recorded by foreign explorers, missionaries, and ethnographers, many accounts referred to events in pre-colonial times.  Thus, while I believe it is vital to recognize the colonial contexts and interrelationships, we risk overemphasizing them if we ignore the individual dimensions, and indigenous cultural dimensions. Given that I do address the colonial dimensions at length where relevant to a narrative, I do not believe the book would be problematic for undergraduates in that regard. 

Mary L. Keller

With great appreciation--I regret your need to provide the correction, and my review is improved by your clarification and comments. I especially appreciate the insistence on the value and significance of individual experience as a methodological issue.  I take this point to heart.


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