India: The Hindu belief in Bhut

India: The Hindu belief in Bhut
By Rhetta Akamatsu

India is a predominantly Hindu country, and many people there have a strong belief in Bhuta, or evil spirits. As in other countries, these evil spirits are the ghosts of men who died by execution, murder, or suicide, or were denied a proper funeral. A distinction between these ghosts and those of some other countries is that Bhuta are always male and always evil. They never rest on the ground, and in order to protect themselves from them, people throw themselves down flat on the ground. They are especially feared by newlyweds, women and children.

Bhuta are restless; they haunt trees and deserts, wells, and the roofs of houses. They are very fond of crossroads, an interesting corollary with certain traditions of the American South. They are very noisy, and will posess their victims if they show fear. This is the central belief concerning ghosts in India: they can only harm those who fear them. Bhuta are mentioned prominently in the Bhagavad Gita, the major Hindu text.

Bhuta are part of a larger group of evil ghosts called woni. Along with the Bhuta are another group of all male spirits called jen. Female ghosts are called dakana and churail.

Churail always appear as irresistible, seductive women. Their saris cover their identifying feature, their backward-facing feet. If a man falls for the churail and is intimate with her, he will become impotent; furthermore, he will contract a high fever and his features will be drawn into a permanent mask of terror, and he will constantly shake his head in a circular motion from then on. This appears to be a supernatural explanation for one of the many inexplicable fevers one encounters in India. The only cure for this or any disease caused by woni is through a negotiation between the spirit and a particular type of fearless man called a bhovo, somewhat equivalent to the American idea of an exorcist.

The dakana, on the other hand, do not take a human shape, but appear as a flame in secluded places. If a person is not afraid, the flame will disappear, but if the person is afraid, the flame will possess him.

While the Bhuta are most feared by women and children, the jen only attack men. The places where the jen are to be found are usually well-known. A jen takes the form of a pack of puppies which run around a potential victims' legs; once again, safety depends on not being afraid. A fearful man will be possessed. A person possessed by a jen is recognized by his tremendous appetite for food and by his violent and uncontrolled language and behavior.

All of these ghosts will only cease to possess their victims through outside intervention, either by the bhovo, or in extreme cases by a more extreme ritual conducted by a faqir, and even then, sometimes the negotiations fail.

So, for many residents of India who believe in ghosts, the only real way to avoid becoming the host of an evil spirit is to be fearless, for no woni can harm a person who is unafraid.
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