By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - A leading college in Mumbai hosted a seminar on ghosts on September 19, the first time in Indian academic history that graduate students were officially treated to studying phenomena of those hair-raising sounds and visions that usually visit past the midnight hour.
India's financial capital paying scholarly attention to ghosts is only newest chapter of ancient spooky folklore from ancient Greece's vrykolakas (vampires), to the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Japanese yurei ghosts.
Spectral species deserve to be in the news, having occupied the fringes of human consciousness for millennia. One study found that more people claim to have seen and photographed ghosts than those claiming to have seen God .
In Asia, ghosts are no strangers in daily life. China has its annual Ghost Festival celebrated each year. The Chinese say ghosts roam the world mid-July.
In India, many business establishments and residences hang a red or green chilli and a lemon outside the front door to ward off evil spirits; or hoist pumpkins or earthen pots painted with ferocious faces, to presumably scare off scary beings such as demons and debt collectors.
Indian governmental departments are not far behind giving ghosts their due. The Archaeology Society of India (ASI) considers at least one haunted site not mere mythology. An ASI sign outside the deserted ghost town of Bhangarh issues a dire warning “Staying in the area after sunset is strictly prohibited”.
The Medieval fort town of Bhangarh is in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, at the edge of the Sariska forest and about 80 kilometers from the state capital Jaipur. Local lore says an evil sorcerer cursed the town after he was killed by a very beautiful queen who was fed up with his persistent amorous advances. With its deserted, dark, brooding mansions, Bhangarh's appearance matches its reputation as India's most haunted place.
Mumbai got on the track of Bhangarh's ghosts. "It was a very interesting seminar," the head of the SIES philosophy department Dr Uma Shankar told Asia Times Online at the end of the day dedicated to ghosts. "The students came from various backgrounds, religions, and they were receptive, open, curious and asked perceptive questions. They understood that they cannot dismiss any reported phenomena, such as spirits and rebirth, as mere nonsense and hallucinations."
Shankar said the purpose of the seminar on ghosts was for her students to develop the courage to objectively confront non-conventional issues. The 51-year old SIES College has over 4,000 students.
That humans are not the only sentient beings on earth helps in personal development; that we don't know everything is a healthy perspective to reduce dogmatic viewpoints.
The interested SIES students contributed to realizing how ghosts and other so-called supernatural phenomena actually help to expand the frontiers of constantly evolving conventional science. Scientists cannot claim to know everything yet. 500 years ago, in the lifetime of Galileo Galilei, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun was considered blasphemy not science.
While the late etiquette guru Emily Post have not yet specified the proper style of greeting a ghost, the 70-year old writer PS Ganesan - who chaired the ghosts seminar in the SIES College of Science and Commerce - has interviewed prominent citizens who say they have met ghosts.
Ganesan addressed the SIES college's philosophy students about first-hand ghost experiences he had meticulously gathered for years, and included in his book Ghosts, Occults & Exorcists: True and Real Experiences.
Ganesan's list includes two retired Supreme Court judge and a fellow Supreme Court judge who both claim to have seen the ghost of the dead wife of one of the judges.
Those who claim to have had ghostly encounters include hard-nosed, no-nonsense professionals like former Indian cricket captain and leading media commentator Ravi Shastri. During a rain break in India's just concluded nightmare of a tour of England, Shastri said how he met a ghost in an English castle turned into a hotel.
He saw at this apparition at his door, but was only so irritated at being woken up at such an unearthly hour that he rudely told the ghost to "just get lost". The poor ghost had probably only appeared to collect his autograph.
India is a country rich with ghost lore, both at an urban and village level. More gods than ghosts though inhabit the mountains of northern India. The Himalayan state of Uttarkhand has its official tagline as "Abode of the Gods", not ghosts. Rishikesh-based veteran mountain trekkers Vipin Sharma and Arvind Bharadwaj have spent many a night alone in the higher Himalayas, such as near Nanda Devi, India's tallest Himalayan peak, but said they met no ghosts.
It's a not the same story elsewhere in the Himalayas. In November last year, during my brief stay in a remote hamlet near the enchantingly beautiful Himalayan lake of Deoria Tal, I was warned not to venture out for a tempting late night walk under the light of a bewitching moon. "A djinn [a sometimes evil spirit in Indian-Persian-Arabic folklore] walks here around midnight," a local said.
Personally, I have no problem with accepting that ghosts exist, even though I have not yet met one. Regular practice of metta bhavana results in feelings of compassion not fear, for djinns, demons and their cousins from the netherworld. . Ghosts have a tough life - it's not much fun when the instant you make a social appearance the party breaks up in wild disorder, with folks rushing away screaming in fright or rooted petrified with hair standing on end.
Besides, the whole issue of ghosts haunting humans may be a case of the footwear being on the other leg. At this moment, some worried ghosts may be unburdening themselves to their psychiatrists: "I'm losing it, doc, I'm seeing humans in my house."
"Nonsense, my boy," the spectral shrink might snort sharply. "There are no such things as humans. You know very well there is not a shred of scientific evidence to prove that humans exist."
"But doc," the allegedly haunted ghost may groan, "they say humans appear after sunrise and are all up and about at 12.00 noon."
"All grandma's tales, my boy. All reports of human haunting are merely astral projections of suppressed childhood fears. Were you locked up in a dark room as punishment when you were a little ghost?"
Though I am convinced that ghosts exist, I support the so-called "rationalists" carrying out experiments to debunk all paranormal phenomena. They protect people from blind superstition, and being monetarily and sexually exploited by fraudsters claiming to be a two-legged telephone exchange between the mundane world and those with death certificates.
Though everything is subject to verification of the truth, ghosts included, there are truths that are not yet evident to minds and apparatus with limitations. A tribal in a remote rain forest who has never ever seen a car, leave alone a Boeing 747, may share the same sneering look when someone tells him of a flying machine that can carry hundreds of people and fly faster and higher than any bird.
Ghosts such as petas (hungry ghosts) are only another form of suffering beings caught in the cycle of misery of birth, decay, death - with the nature of birth and life-form determined by the law of cause and effect.
Those working to clean the mind's accumulated impurities have little trouble in seeing that humans, animals, varieties of ghosts and gods are all subject to the truth of impermanence and change every moment. The cycle of suffering continues, until the mind is totally purified of all impurities, and there is no more life force to build another mind or matter existence.
Many innate human faculties opened up in a very pure human mind - such as telepathy and reading others' thoughts like words on a page - are still very much outside known realms of academic science. So too is the world of ghosts, and gods who come at night to take guidance in meditation from human teachers.
Disbelief in such matters is immaterial; what matters more is accepting the reality of the law of cause and effect, and the truth that we do this moment is the seed of the fruit of the next moment, if not the next life.
The spirit of open thinking was followed in the Mumbai college seminar on spirits. Dr Uma Shankar, said "I had told the students to just hear the speaker and reach their own conclusions. They needed to take things with a pinch of salt, and they exhibited open-mindedness - which was important."
A dose of healthy skepticism is good for me, but also healthy for more agreeable living is me not hastily dismissing other people's experiences by blindly assuming to be deluded. "Yes, O Lord," the less visible perhaps standing behind you and reading this article might agree.
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