Are evil spirits, ghosts, possession by the Devi and other such phenomena simply figments of an overcharged imagination? That’s what many scientists and almost all rationalists believe. However, stories of the paranormal have been around for countless centuries. In several ancient Indian texts such as the Bhagvata Purana, Harivamsa, Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Vishnu Purana, Garga Samhita, Prem Sagar and elsewhere, many kinds of evil spirits and ghosts — namely Dakinis, Yatudhanis, Kusmandas, Yaksas, Raksasas, Vinayakas, Kotaras, Revatis, Jyesthas, Putanas, Matrikas, Unmadas and other similar supernatural entities are mentioned.
Significantly, not only are they mentioned, there is considerable detail about them. There are witches called khecari, which means they can fly in the sky. They can transfer themselves from one place to another on the branch of an uprooted tree. The Buddhist text, Saddharmapundarika Sutra and the 1131 CE encyclopedia Manasollasa by Chalukya King Somesvara III lists multiple demons, and they are also mentioned in the Brahmanda Purana and Harita Samhita. The Devi pratha has also been around for a very long time across almost all of India and is still extremely strong. And here, there are three points which in my view are very important.
Firstly, why must even well substantiated paranormal incidents or faith in the Devi and other such phenomena be given such a narrow interpretation and be dismissed or labelled as “superstition” or andhvishwas? Apart from their paranormal nature, they are symbolic and a part of very deep cultural ethos and other philosophies. For example, in Hindu mythology, Putana is a Matrika – an evil spirit — who transformed herself into a beautiful woman and tried to kill the infant-god Krishna by getting him to suckle milk from her poison smeared breasts but Krishna sucked out not just her milk but her entire life force.
Putana is variously portrayed as an evil hag, an ogress, a demoness. Putana knew witchcraft, and therefore she is described in the Bhagavatam as khecari . The Bhagvata Purana defined her as a yātudhānī or evil spirit. However, Indian and international scholars of repute have studied the deeper implications : one theory interprets Putana being the first foe faced by Krishna — later on numerous demons are sent by Kamsa to kill Krishna — or as the first obstacle of possessive maternal instinct faced by yogis. In some texts, Putana is described as a Vaki, a female crane, thus a symbol of crookedness and hypocrisy. Putana’s bird form also symbolises desire of materialistic objectives, etc, etc. So let us not forget that there is always a deeper, hidden underlying meaning in paranormal/supernatural phenomena.
It is also a misconception that supernatural phenomena occur only in backward areas.
It is also a misconception that supernatural phenomena occur only in backward areas or amongst a few remaining tribes. They are very much a reality in modern times even in the heart of big towns and cities, even in areas where educational and awareness levels are very high. The only difference : the traditional ojhas or medicine men or witch doctors are now known as bhagats or tantrics. This brings me to the third important point and am briefly confining it only to educated town people.
In case of an illness or malady that refuses to go away or abnormal behaviour that comes on suddenly most town and city people try the rational, scientific routes first — going to a doctor or psychoanalyst, trying to find a cure, etc. It is when this doesn’t yield results that they turn to bhagats and others who have knowledge of the paranormal. It isn’t just blind belief.
I was in tribal Bastar and later in Jaunsar Bawar, a remote backward, polyandrous area. In both these areas and elsewhere, I observed that the communities have a very fine sense of distinguishing between which cases or happenings require paranormal handling, and which require other kinds of intervention like a town doctor, etc.
I have also seen and experienced in some instances remarkable cases of boons and powers gained through Devi worship and also of Devi possession and the Devi’s anger. For instance, in Delhi a girl who had returned from a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi was possessed by the Devi. Amongst many other paranormal things that happened, a well fed cat walked into the room while the girl was possessed. “Oh”, said the Devi possessed girl looking at the cat, “so you’ve just eaten a rat. Now its your turn to die” and she pointed a finger at the cat and the cat died on the spot. More than a dozen people witnessed this. Rationalists will argue that the cat must have eaten a poisoned rat, but if that were so, it would have been an instant death at the pointing of a finger.
There was the case of my uncle’s driver, fondly called Chacha. A Durga Devi devotee, it was his life’s ambition to obtain darshan or even just a glimpse of the Devi and for this he began chanting certain mantras everyday. Nothing happened for several months and he became the butt of light hearted teasing. “So, Chacha, what blessings has the Devi conferred on you in secret?” people who met him would often joke.
And then one night, my uncle’s family was jolted awake by terrifying screams of bachao, bachao — save me, save me — which seemed to be coming from the servants quarters. Rushing out, they found a breathless and trembling Chacha. It seems the Devi had appeared before him in all her glory, astride her tiger, who Chacha swore, had roared and moved towards him at which point all thoughts of the Devi vanished from Chacha’s mind and fright of the tiger took over. Priests opined that by not being fully prepared for the very happening for which he had been chanting mantras he lost a wonderful opportunity to obtain a boon and who knows what else.
But though Chacha’s devotion to the Devi didn’t diminish, the experience put an end to his ‘life’s ambition’ to obtain darshan of the Devi. Now, Chacha’s case cannot be dismissed or labelled as “superstition” or andhvishwas. There are many other well substantiated and most interesting paranormal incidents or faith in the Devi and other such phenomena which I will share with you another time.