Ghosts: Life and Death in North India

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Item Code: IDC617
Author: Ruth S. Freed and Stanley A. Freed
Publisher: American Museum of Natural History
Language: English
Edition: 1993
ISBN: 9780295973036
Pages: 396 (B&W. illus.: 10)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 10" x 7.0"
Weight 950 gm
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Book Description

The belief in ghosts is part of the pan-human belief in souls. In India, ghosts are the souls of people who die before their allotted time or from a dread disease, murder, or suicide, or who end their lives without experiencing such joys of adulthood as sexual pleasure and children, especially a son. In Hinduism, ghosts are integrated into a sophisticated system of moral causality (dharma, karma, and rebirth), and an ancient sacred literature and mythology.

Individual Indians, both men and women, become susceptible to ghost possession in stressful circumstances. Brides, usually teenagers, are especially vulnerable as they try to cope with moving to a strange village, new relatives, required submissive behavior, sexual adjustment, and the worries of pregnancy and first childbirth.

The authors' many-faceted analysis of Indian ghost beliefs features a descriptive and comparative case-study method. Functional analysis places ghost beliefs into ethnographic context, showing, for example, the relationship of family life or gender to ghost illness, ghost possession, and poltergeist attack. Historical analysis relates ghost illness and ghost possession to Hindu ideology and sacred texts and to such traumatic events as famines and the epidemics of bubonic plague (1896-1921,10 million deaths) and influenza (1918- 1919, 12.5 million deaths).

Ghost illness is analyzed in the context of curing practices and theories of medicine: Ayurveda (the ancient Hindu art and science of medicine), Western medicine (allopathy), homeopathy, Unani (Greek), and popular pharmaceutical medicine, with emphasis on the first two. Analysis of ghost phenomena draws on psychological and biological concepts, especially research that deals with dissociative disorders, such as ghost possession.

Ghosts: Life and Death in North India may well be the most comprehensive description and analysis of ghost belief, ghost illness, and ghost possession based primarily on eth- nographic fieldwork not only for India but also for the rest of the world. It will be of interest to anthropologists, historians, South Asian specialists, psychologists, public health workers, folklorists, specialists in women's studies, and students of comparative religion.



Our first analysis of ghost beliefs in Shanti Nagar(S. Freed and R. Freed, 1964) was based on four cases that we recorded in 1958-59. We were able greatly to expand our database during our second trip owing to an epidemic of ghost possession that took place in 1977- 78. Moreover, during that trip we obtained a long finely detailed psychomedical case his- tory of a Chamar Leatherworker woman, one of whose possessions we observed in 1958- 59. For a number of years, she suffered from ghost possession and later, from fits. This case history was the basis of our second publica- tion dealing at length with ghosts and pos- session (R. Freed and S. Freed, 1985). In the 1964 article, we identified the Chamar wom- an by the pseudonym Daya. The pseudonym of Sita was used for the same woman in the 1985 monograph and is retained in the pres- ent study. The current monograph is our most comprehensive analysis of ghost beliefs and their historical, mythological, social, eco- nomic, medical, and psychological concom- itants. It is based on thousands of pages of fieldnotes buttressed by extensive library re- search, especially about ghost beliefs, alter- nate states of consciousness, and stress, and a careful reexamination of village terms re- garding ghosts. For us as anthropologists, this research has been an enriching exploration of human behavior.

Some place names and geographical ex- pressions have changed in recent decades. The new spelling of Dhaka, instead of Dacca, is now well established. Varanasi, sometimes called Kashi by the villagers, has replaced Benares or its variants, i.e., Banaras. In the older literature, Punjab was frequently pre- ceded by the definite article, as "in the Pun- jab." Modern usage drops the article, thus "in Punjab." We have compromised, tending to use the article when writing of pre-Inde- pendence India and dropping it when the ref- erence is to modern times. We use the older Rajputana instead of Rajasthan in appropri- ate historical context.

Delhi includes two cities, Old Delhi and New Delhi, and also can mean Delhi Union Territory in some contexts. We use the phrase, "City of Delhi," to refer to the undifferen- tiated city as distinct from the union territory or region of Delhi. Old Delhi and New Delhi are used when greater precision is appropri- ate.

Throughout this monograph it has been necessary to use a sprinkling of Hindi words. Only those words which are not in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (Gove, 1986) are ital- icized. We generally use the English "s" at the end of an italicized word to form the plu- ral.

To mask the identity of individuals and yet emphasize the importance of individuals in culture, we have given them pseudonyms. In this text we have chosen English pseudo- nyms (with the exception of the Indian pseu- donyms of Sita and her cousin, Taraka) to make it easier for a non-Indian reader to re- member the principal characters than would be the case with the two other common styles of pseudonyms: replacement of the true name by another Indian name or by initials. Many pseudonyms identify a characteristic of an individual, for example, occupation. We have tried to avoid pseudonyms that are inappro- priately pejorative. However, some individ- uals are characterized by behavior or person- ality traits that are generally known. In such cases, we sometimes base a pseudonym on the behavior, for example, "Tippler" for a notorious drinker. Such pseudonyms do not compromise anonymity since the behavior is not unique. Tippler was not the only drinker. Where the same pseudonym is applicable to more than one person, we use a roman nu- meral with the pseudonym: examples, Bud- dhist I, Buddhist II, Atheist I, Atheist II. The Index and Glossary lists all the pseudonyms with their gender and caste.

Appendices provide fuller information on subjects that cannot be elaborated in the text. Because footnotes or endnotes would become repetitive, we have not used them. Instead, we have organized a number of subjects, which otherwise would require lengthy ex- planations in the text, into appendices. The appendices are generally aimed at supplying information for readers not familiar with spe- cial subjects. Some examples are: Disease (Append. I), Sacred Hindu Texts (Append. 11), and Calendric Events (Append. V). Throughout the text they are referred to as above in parentheses or brackets, the latter when within a quotation, for example [Ap- pend. II].

Ghost illness, ghost possession, and pol- tergeist attacks are manifestations of the be- liefin ghosts. Karma (action), one of the ma- jor concepts of Hinduism, is basic to the belief in ghosts, for whether one's soul becomes a wandering ghost is determined principally by the sum of the soul's good and bad actions in past lives. Life and death are related to karma. The index of ghost illness is Fever, conceived of as a supernatural being, for the belief is that Fever is brought by a ghost who tries to seize the soul of the victim. If the ghost is successful, the person dies. However, instead of having ghost illness, individuals may suffer ghost possession wherein ghosts speak from them and cause them to go through dissociative states. On recovery the victim does not remember the possession. A poltergeist upsets the dwelling and/or work- place of the victim who is aware of the attack, in contrast to the amnesia that follows ghost possession. For ghost illness, ghost posses- sion, and a poltergeist attack, the treatment is exorcism of the ghost.

During fieldwork in 1958-59 and 1977- 78, we gathered data on ghost beliefs and also interviewed followers of the Arya Samaj, a reform sect of Hinduism, who generally do not believe in ghosts. During the second field trip, numerous events upset the villagers. Ty- phoid and malaria epidemics contributed to an epidemic of ghost possession and also to a poltergeist attack, which brought the phe- nomena forcefully to our attention and led us to gather as much information as possible, especially concerning specific case histories that substantiate attacks and illustrate ghost beliefs. Our notes from both trips contain considerable data concerning village beliefs about ghosts, exorcists, other curers, and case histories of individuals who were believed to have died from ghost illness or who suffered ghost possessions or poltergeist attacks.

Our treatment of the subject of ghosts uses a descriptive and comparative case-study method. Analysis takes several forms. Func- tional analysis places the phenomena into ethnographic context showing the relation- ships of ghost illness, ghost possession, and poltergeist attack to, for example, family life. Historical analysis relates ghost illness and ghost possession to such traumatic regional and national events as famines, the plague and influenza epidemics, and the relation of ghost beliefs to Hindu ideology and the sa- cred texts of Hinduism. Ghost illness is an- alyzed in the context of curing practices and theories of medicine: Ayurveda (the ancient Hindu art and science of medicine), Western medicine (allopathy), homeopathy, Unani (Greek), and popular pharmaceutical medi- cine with emphasis on the first two. Analysis of ghost phenomena draws on psychological and biological concepts, especially the re- search that deals with dissociative states like ghost possession. Some Indian regional dif- ferences concerning ghost beliefs and illness are noted. We describe comparable phenom- ena in other countries in order to provide a broader geographical and phenomenological dimension.

This combination of descriptive and ana- lytical methods grew from the holistic ap- proach to fieldwork that we have practiced for over 30 years. It leads to a deeper under- standing of human behavior than do more narrow, problem-focused studies. We admire and have used the latter when relevant and appreciate the possibility that their meth- odological rigor might confirm relationships that are suggested by studies such as ours. For example, the relationship of "stress" to ghost possessions might be investigated by comparing individuals who suffer ghost pos- sessions with a control group of individuals living under comparable stress who do not. Such a study would have considerable value, but for it to escape the pitfalls that accom- pany a narrow focus, it would have to be presented against the background of the kind of study offered in this monograph.

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