The thing a human being should fear most is perhaps his own mind. For our imagination creates most of the horrors we live through. Tagore’s idyllic pasture — “where the mind is without fear” — may seem quite utopian if traditions pertaining to the supernatural in different human cultures are studied. It would seem that the human mind cannot survive without fear. On the one hand it struggles to conquer fear; on the other, it crafts elaborate rituals to evoke fear.
Rational fears often cannot provide enough stimulation, since they can be overcome by logic. So, the fear of the inexplicable takes form in the irrational imagining of the dead. The Egyptian pyramid, one of the most extravagant creations of that civilization, is entirely based on the notion of life after death. The early Egyptians not only built pyramids to nurture their ghosts, but they also wrote extensively on the supernatural in the Pyramid Texts and The Book of the Dead. Their culture may seem to revolve quite a bit around the dead — not as memory but as a dynamic force.
Connections between the living and the dead are not unfamiliar. While reading Tagore’s Jibito O Mrito, I suddenly realized why the petni (a female ghost in Bengal) always wears white. The petni resembles Hindu widows of the 19th century or earlier. Since these women were subjected to rituals and rules that made them morbid and weak, they started to look like shadows from another world even before they died. It is their frail, white, unhappy shapes that seem to haunt us in the form of the petni. Figures of ghosts in other cultures, too, serve as mirrors to forms and perceptions specific to those societies.
Ghosts tend to be more or less malevolent. In some Western cultures, ghosts can become part of a supernaturally ordained penalty for sin — although they must also be exorcised. They may pose a counterpoint to Christian virtue — without the evil Other, the good can never be established as compellingly. But there is also a palpable longing to be haunted as some European ghost stories show. This is almost a quirk, one that is expressed in the violence of Western horror fiction.
Ghosts in African and native American lore can be equally horrifying, albeit in a different manner. In tales I have read, ghosts have shades of grey, they are mystifying, and are guided by a quaint morality. They accept ritual sacrifices, but they also protect and preserve. The traditions of ‘ancestor worship’ reveal that spirits are saviours and guides too. These African ghosts bear with them wisdom, and history. They are secrets that the cultures which produce them keep and defend. Maybe this is why, in some African ghost stories, a Western explorer documenting indigenous rituals is haunted by the local ghosts. And in some other stories, ghosts of ancestors return to remind the living of the inherent values and beliefs of their culture. Sometimes, as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the ghost is a reflection of the conscience.
However, traditions of the supernatural do not always involve the horrific. Friendly ghosts are abundant in Indian literature. And although Chinese and Japanese ghost stories evoke a lot of horror, some of their ghosts, in essence, are spirits that purify, and even bring luck. It is interesting how, in most Oriental cultures, ghosts are feared, but also respected. They do not belong to ‘normal’ life, but are somehow integral to the thoughts and practices of a people. The Japanese zashiki-warashi, for example, is an infant ghost that brings great fortune to the house it resides in. And Indian ghosts often play the role of friend and mentor to human beings, as Indian children’s fiction demonstrates.
But happy ghosts are the exception. In general, ghosts are angry, and often seek revenge. Be it in Europe, Africa or Japan, a ghost is typically the disgruntled soul of a tortured person which craves ‘justice’. In such cases, death is empowering. In African and Japanese cultures, there is a range of women ghosts who either haunt the living to avenge their death or try to protect their loved ones, usually their children. And then there is the ghost of the victim of unrequited love, who refuses to let the beloved go.
Ghosts are not just a product of the desire to be frightened. Maybe the mind exposes itself to fear in order to boost its positive energies. Ghosts are also born out of a yearning to know the unknown.
But, most important, ghosts reassure humans that death is not the end. That there can be revenge, love and justice even after the body has degenerated. Ghosts are perhaps the strongest expression of the desire to defeat death.