Do ghosts exist? Around the world, there are endless studies and discussions on this subject. Simply put, ghosts are lifeless beings that inspire fear. Sometimes they are the spirit of someone who was once alive. Other times, they simply fall beyond the physical rules of the universe. These uncanny beings have found mention in primeval epics like the Ramayana or Mahabharata; Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible; The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the Iliad; and the Odyssey, among others.
Ghost lore has been part of the popular imagination. Around the fifth century BCE, a physical projection of ghosts was staged in the classical Greek drama Oresteia by Aeschylus. During the European Renaissance, a book called Of Ghostes and Spirites, Walking by Night by Ludwig Lavater was said to have been reprinted several times. The mythical One Thousand and One Nights also includes tales of supernatural beings.
Later, around 1173 CE, the Dracula called Count Estruch became very popular and terrifying. According to Catalan mythology, Count Estruch died fighting against witchcraft. The practice of witchcraft was prevalent in medieval Britain. Agnes, also known as the Wise Wife of Keith, was said to be one of the witches who terrorised East Lothian of Scotland during the North Berwick Witch Trials, 1590. Later, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall became one of the most famous hauntings of spooky Britain since the photographers from Country Life magazine claimed to have captured an image of this lady in 1835.
Elsewhere in Europe, the concept of the vampire, that still creates a sensation among writers and filmmakers, was first introduced in Hungary. The German spirit poltergeist, which creates a racket and moves objects with loud noise, found its place in many modern cinematic representations.
The banshee, an Irish spirit, was said to have made its ghastly appearance just before deaths in families. A widespread myth of the monster called the goblin could be found all across Europe, during the Middle Ages. This mischievous creature had a small, hairy body with a greed for gold, and sometimes possessed magical abilities as well.
Another very popular concept of ghosts called the zombie, first originated in Haitian folklore. Zombies are supposed to be magically resurrected human corpses which have an insatiable appetite for fresh flesh.
When it comes to Indian mythical ghosts, these are to be found in ancient Indian sacred texts like the Rigveda, where a classification of ghosts can be found...
Literature, movies, drama, paintings, etc, have always played significant roles in representing social structures. Remarkably, in all of these genres, ghosts or spiritual beings have marked their presence in some way. Naturally, their characteristics are influenced by the geographic, cultural, and temporal spaces in which they are brought to life, so to say. Yet, there are strange similarities between all these ghosts regardless of which part of the world they belong to.
The definition of “class” has evolved over time. During the medieval period, this classification was based on the occupational role assigned to an individual in society. As a result, ancient tales often placed supernatural beings within the folds of the prevalent social hierarchy in a sort of mirror image, or perhaps ghost image.
This is why there is a definitive hierarchy in the supernatural world with monsters, demons, pretas, rakshasas or spirits, taking their places alongside humans and gods. A detailed exploration of this aspect of the spirit world is beyond the scope of this book but it is definitely something worth mentioning.
Over time, humans realised that the dead would always outnumber the living. The void created by the absence of someone is impossible to fill. But the discomfort and ambiguity that follow death emerge in the tales of the deceased who return among us as ghosts.
There are numerous possible reasons why these otherworldly figures enter the imagination of the living. For example, someone who had been oppressed in their lifetime might come back to seek justice. Throughout history, there have been brutal injustices perpetrated on those belonging to the marginalised sections of the society. This may have led to the emergence of legends about notorious spirits such as the masan or kanipishachi that notably set about seeking justice for their oppressed “class”.
Significantly, the dayani of North India seeks to avenge the brutality meted out to lower-caste, dark-skinned women. The oppression and pain of women throughout centuries have engendered one of the largest corpuses of ghost stories. It explains why there are so many female ghosts in both literature and film.
Throughout history, in all cultures, women have been deprived, tortured, and victimised. Other than the patriarchy, social barriers have also heavily affected women. In Indian culture, there was a time (until the eighteenth century) when a man could have a large number of wives.The chief role of these wives was to keep giving birth until their bodies eventually gave up.
Naturally, there are innumerable stories that can be found of ghosts that have risen from the death of pregnant women, or women who died while giving birth, or women who were sexually abused, and so on.Whether it is the sankhchunni or the chiroguni – these blood-curdling ghosts seek revenge on behalf of women who were terrorised when they were alive.
The legends surrounding the ghosts of unmarried women, such as the petni or the kichin, strike fear since they can also seek horrific sexual gratification from the living. Sexual desires have often driven ghosts into finding a way back to the mortal world. Even some male ghosts like the supurus have a reputation for attempting to have sex. Female spirits are not the only sort of ghosts who seek vengeance. In fact, the majority of unquiet phantoms are those who are seeking vengeance on those who oppressed or murdered them when they were living.
India has, arguably, the most diverse families of ghosts to be found anywhere on the planet because of the simple fact that Indian society is, arguably, the most diverse on earth, with each of its subsets having a distinctive method of worship, culture, lifestyle, and so on.
As with the mortal world, so with the spirit world. Most of the communities in our society have their own types of ghouls, spirits, and other undead creatures. However, a number of them have several things in common, should not be surprising given that all Indians have a fair amount in common. An interesting fact of the spirit world is that spectres are but a reflection of the society they arise from.When calm, peace, equality, and fraternity become the traits most associated with our society, all malevolent spirits will drift away.The answer to our nightmares lies within us.
Excerpted with permission from The Book of Indian Ghosts, Riksundar Banerjee, Illustrations by Raka Chowdhury, Aleph Book Company.