A bhoot or bhuta (Sanskrit: भूत bhūta) is a supernatural creature, usually the ghost of a deceased person, in the popular culture, literature and some ancient texts of the Indian subcontinent. Interpretations of how bhoots come into existence vary by region and community, but they are usually considered to be perturbed and restless due to some factor that prevents them from moving on (to transmigration, non-being, nirvana, or heaven or hell, depending on tradition). This could be a violent death, unsettled matters in their lives, or simply the failure of their survivors to perform proper funerals.
The belief in ghosts is deeply ingrained in the minds of the people of India across generations. The various concepts of ghosts trace their roots in the vast bodies of Hindu mythology, its religious texts, literature and folktales. There are many allegedly haunted places in India, such as cremation grounds, dilapidated buildings, royal mansions, forts, forest bungalows, burning ghats, etc… Ghosts also occupy a significant place in the Bengali culture. Ghosts and various supernatural entities form an integral part of the socio-cultural beliefs of the both Hindu and Muslim communities of rural Bengal. Fairy tales often use the concept of ghost and references to paranormal activities are found amply in modern-day Bengali literature, cinema, radio and TV programs.
Etymology and idiom
Bhūta is a Sanskrit term that carries the connotations of “past” and “being” and, because it has connection with “one of the most wide-spread roots in Indo-European — namely, *bheu/*bhu-“, has similar-sounding cognates in virtually every branch of that language family, e.g., Irish (bha), English (be), Latvian (but) and Persian (budan).
In Hindi, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Bengali, Sindhi and other languages of the northern subcontinent, the concept of bhoots is extensively used in idiom. To be “ridden by the bhoot of something” (bhoot sawaar hona) means to take an obsessive interest in that thing or work unrelentingly towards that goal. Conversely, to “dismount a bhoot” (bhoot utaarna) means to break through an obsession or see through a false belief that was previously dearly held. “To look like a bhoot” (bhoot lagna) means to look disheveled and unkempt or to dress ridiculously. A house or building that is untidy, unmaintained or deserted when it should not be is sometimes pejoratively called a bhoot bangla. The word has also entered Javanese language of Indonesia through Sanskrit, it is pronounced buta and generally refers to a malevolent spirit/demonic giant which haunts places, it also refers to the genre of evil giants in wayang stories such as Buta Cakil.
Characteristics of bhoots
Bhoots are able to alter and assume forms of various animals at will, but are usually seen in human form. However, their feet often reveal them to be ghosts, as they are backwards facing. As the earth is regarded as sacred or semi-sacred in many traditions of the Indian subcontinent, bhoots go to lengths to avoid contact with it, often floating above it, either imperceptibly or up to a foot above. Bhoots cast no shadows, and speak with a nasal twang. They often lurk on specific trees and prefer to appear in white clothing. Sometimes bhoots haunt specific houses (the so-called bhoot banglas, i.e. bhoot bungalows), which are typically places where they were killed or which have some other significance to the bhoot.
Many ghost stories in the region combine these elements. For instance, they might involve a protagonist who fails to flee or take countermeasures when they run across a bhoot. Instead, they unwittingly accept the bhoot’s companionship (e.g., makes the ghost a companion as he/she walks through a forest, picks up the ghost in his car because it looks like an attractive woman waiting by the roadside at night). They become progressively aware that their companion is dressed entirely in white and has a funnily nasal voice, before the horrifying realization dawns on them that their companion’s feet are turned backwards, or he/she is not casting a shadow in the moonlight, or is walking without actually touching the ground. Bhoots are said to seek out milk and immerse themselves in it. Consuming bhoot-contaminated milk is considered a typical route for bhoot-possession of humans, which has also been a frequent plot element in bhoot stories.
A particular kind of bhoot, that of a woman that died during pregnancy or childbirth, is known as a chudail (dakini in Nepal and eastern India). Chudails look like human women, but their feet are turned backwards or other features are turned upside down. They can change their forms at any time. Chudails often try to lure young men at road crossings and fields or similar places. If a man is enamored of a chudail, it is believed that she will cause his death. There are, however, stories of people living with a chudail, or even marrying one.
In many regions, bhoots are supposed to fear water and steel or iron objects, so keeping those nearby is believed to scare them off. The scent of burnt turmeric is also said to ward them off. As is typical of ghosts throughout the world, invoking the name of holy figures and deities is also said to repel bhoots. In some regions, sprinkling earth on oneself is said to shield against bhoots. According to Hindu mythology, the soul cannot be destroyed by any means. As a bhoot is just a deceased, lost, or angry soul, the Hindu exorcists do not (or cannot) destroy them, but in turn performs a ritual according to the Atharva Veda called atma-shanti which is just a modified shraadh (death anniversary) done by those haunted by the bhoot to promise it that everything in the power of them would be done to either assure the rebirth of the bhoot or finish the works left incomplete by the bhoot (or both). Thus the bhoot gets what it wants and would stop troubling those haunted by it forever.
The Bhutas, spirits of defied heroes, of fierce and evil beings, of Hindu deities and of animals, etc., are wrongly referred to as “ghosts” or “demons” and, in fact, are protective and benevolent beings. Though it is true that they can cause harm in their violent forms, as they are extremely powerful, they can be pacified through worshipings or offerings referred to as Bhuta Aradhana.