BHŪTA In Sanskrit, Bhūta (bhūt in modern Indic languages) means a "supernatural being," a ghost or spirit, sometimes beneficent but more often malevolent and a source of anxiety for individuals and communities. In the late Vedic period, two original meanings—a living being or a cosmic element—shifted to include "disembodied spirit." Bhūtas became a broad category of beings worthy of daily sacrifices, usually a scattering of grains, but sometimes a more deliberate offering known as bali. The untimely dead, including suicides, victims of murder, drowning, fire, snakebite, and falls from trees are likely troublesome ghosts haunting the sites of death. Persons with improper funeral rites may vex living relatives by lingering as bhūtas. From the Vedic period to the present, a Hindu funeral and succeeding rites (shrāddha) serve to transform a preta, the continuing spirit released from the body after death, into a pitṛ ("father" or "ancestor") abiding in an otherworldly realm, avoiding bhūta-hood. Bhūta is often conflated with preta; in modern Hindi, bhūtpret is a common term for "ghost." Every region of South Asia has vernacular equivalents to bhūta or preta. In Tamil, pey is a derivative of preta. A Telugu colloquialism, gāli-dhūḷi (wind and dust), signifies omnipresent, dangerous, invisible spirits. Muslims in South Asia speak of jinn with the authority of the Qur′an (surah 55.15) to describe similar phenomena: a jinn, acting for good or evil, may represent the haunting presence of the deceased as well as other supernatural powers.
Classical Sanskrit medical treatises on Āyurveda understood bhūtas broadly to include malevolent grahas (seizers), possessors of humans with ill effects to mind and body. Chapter 60 of the Uttaratantra appendix to Sushruta Saṃhitā covers bhūtavidyā, "the science of bhūtas," including prescriptions for a patient seized by ancestors, demons, ghouls, or other ghosts. Recitation of mantras, offerings of meat, blood, milk, fermented beverages, and even clothes, incense fumigations, and applications of unguents to the patient are recommended by the physician in this text, still considered authoritative.
Folklore holds that a bhūt or pēy is likely to jump on a person at night, or high noon in the hot season, particularly someone passing a cremation site or burial ground or a well (a venue for suicides), under certain trees, or obeying calls of nature. Following a death, a house may be closed for a time, or sold, because of dangerous ghosts. Those who do not fear bhūts are said to be immune from attack. Most every village or town has specialists in exorcisms laboring with the aid of favored goddesses, gods, and saints to identify and dispatch bhūts or jinn from the bodies of their clients. Brahmans and Brahman-imitating high castes profess little credence in bhūt phenomena, yet at times they too become victims, forced to consult generally low caste exorcists. In some locales, both Hindus and Muslims have recourse to the same healer, shrine, or tomb of a saint.
There are many categories. In North India, a brahm is a powerful Brahman male ghost, liable to exact vengeance on enemies with diseases such as leprosy. A bhavānī is the spirit of an unmarried girl. The curail, the ghost of a vengeful barren woman, causes miscarriages. Aborted fetuses may terrorize their kin. Bhūts are supposed to be invisible, yet many describe them as hideous humans dressed in white, feet turned backward, palms of hands reversed, noses clipped, fingernails grossly long.
On the other hand, not all "ghosts" are malevolent or undesired. Male or female children who die before marriage may be installed as household guardian-deity images, credited with the well-being of the family, worshiped and fed daily, paraded in processions, where they possess and speak through mothers or other relatives. In the Vīrabhadra cult of coastal Andhra, possessions are deliberately sought to maintain contact, ease the pain of loss, and satisfy an infant or child deprived of a full life span. The bīr (from Sanskrit vīra, "hero") cults of North India honor heroes, particularly those who died an early, violent death. Bhūta cults of coastal Karnataka also welcome heroic and other spirits, who ritually possess and speak through dancers and priests, receive offerings, and provide blessings to the community.
David M. Knipe
Hiltebeitel, Alf, ed. Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York, 1989. Fieldwork essays by Diane Coccari (Banaras [Varanasi]), David Knipe (coastal Andhra), Günther Sontheimer (the Deccan), and others.
Parry, Jonathan P. Death in Banaras. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University, 1994. Fieldwork basis for discussions of ghosts, spirit possession, exorcism.
Wilson, Liz, ed. The Living and the Dead: Social Dimensions of Death in South Asian Religions. Albany: State University of New York, 2003. Fieldwork essays by Peter Gottschalk (Bihar), David Knipe (coastal Andhra), Isabelle Nabokov (Tamil Nadu), Jonathan Walters (Sri Lanka), and David White (North India).