Question: In some places in South India there are people who claim to enter trance and communicate with God. In such states they do amazing things, like pierce their skin with many needles without bleeding, etc. They are also able to predict the future or tell you things that no one knows. Are these people actually communicating with God in this state?

There are several different types of trance discussed in the scriptures. The trance that you have described above is due to possession by a lower subtle living entity such as a bhuta or ghost. This is commonly seen in cases where people undergo very harmful types of tapasya or austerity that causes injury to the body, such as piercing the skin with needles, hanging their body from metal hooks, etc. This practice is especially common in South India and Malaysia. Though such people may appear to be doing unbelievable austerities, their activities are governed by the mode of ignorance (tamo-guna) and as such bring no spiritual benefit.

In the Bhagavad Gita (17.5-6) Krishna describes such so-called austerities as follows:

ashastra-vihitam ghoram
tapyante ye tapo janah
karshayantah sharira-stham
bhuta-gramam acetasah
mam caivantah sharira-stham
tan viddhy asura-nishcayan

“Those who undergo severe austerities and penances not recommended in the scriptures, performing them out of pride and egoism, who are impelled by lust and attachment, who are foolish and who torture the material elements of the body as well as the Supersoul dwelling within, are to be known as demons (asuras).”

Under such tamasic circumstances trance is induced by ghosts who possess the body of the individual. Unintelligent people sometimes think this state is caused by divine influence.

Divine trance is technically called samadhi, and it is entirely different. It is caused by self purification and intense meditation on God. This spiritual form of trance is described in the Gita (6.20-23) as follows:

yatroparamate cittam
niruddham yoga-sevaya
yatra caivatmanatmanam
pashyann atmani tushyati

sukham atyantikam yat tad
buddhi-grahyam atindriyam
vetti yatra na caivayam
sthitas calati tattvatah

yam labdhva caparam labham
manyate nadhikam tatah
yasmin sthito na duhkhena
gurunapi vicalyate

tam vidyad duhkha-samyoga-
viyogam yoga-samjnitam

“In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.”

This samadhi cannot be attained by all people, only those who are free from material desires can attain this advanced state of communion with God:

vyavasayatmika buddhih
samadhau na vidhiyate
(Bhagavad Gita 2.44)

“In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination needed to enter trance does not manifest.”

Communion with God is not possible without first purifying one’s consciousness. One must become free from attachment to sense enjoyment and material opulence, only then can one experience spiritual trance and communicate with God directly. This is the position of the saints and sadhus: santah sadaiva hridayeshu vilokayanti. Because they have given up all material attachments to sense enjoyment and fixed their body, mind and words on the divine, they are able to see and communicate with the Lord constantly. They are always situated on the transcendental platform of trance, or samadhi.